How to Cure Ham and Bacon the Old-Fashioned Way

How to Cure Ham and Bacon the Old-Fashioned Way. (Image: Carlo A/Moment/GettyImages)

Bacon — a perfect storm of sizzle, smell and savory saltiness — graces breakfast plates, stars at brunch and adds flavor to dinner dishes. Ham, notable for its versatility, can be the highlight of Sunday dinner or sliced thin for a classic chicken cordon bleu recipe. Curing either one at home isn't complicated, and it doesn't require a lot of special equipment.

What’s a Ham?

The word ham refers to a cured pork leg with one exception — a fresh ham is uncured. They can be smoked or unsmoked, picnic or country-style. Cured hams are pink, while uncured hams are a lighter beige or pale pink color. Country ham, the dense, particularly salty version beloved in the South, is a deep brown or mahogany.

  • Whole hams – the entire leg of the pig, from the hipbone to the ankle. Whole hams have a lot of muscle and a heavy layer of fat.
  • Shank portion – the lower portion of a whole ham. The shank is flavorful, but tougher than the butt portion.
  • Butt portion – the front shoulder of a pig. The butt has more fat than the shank.

Salt-Cured Ham and Bacon Tips

Curing salt is a combination of salt, nitrites and/or nitrite. You can find it online, at farm supply stores or in your supermarket's canning section. It's used to preserve meat by slowing spoilage. The first patented product was called Prague Powder, and it's still widely available.

Follow the recommendations for the amount of curing salt to use in your recipe. Nitrites and nitrates can be deadly if you use too much. Using salt by itself to cure the ham, rather than a blend, may allow the growth of harmful bacteria, yeast or mold.

Start with chilled meat and keep it at 40 degrees Fahrenheit as you're preparing the rub or brine. Make sure the brine is cool before you add it to the pork.

Cured ham should smell salty and smoky and have a rosy color and a firm texture. If you suspect your ham has turned, play it safe and throw it away. Mold on the surface of a country ham is not necessarily a bad thing. Use a stiff brush to remove it from the skin before cooking it.

Whole country ham will keep at room temperature for more than a year, but after the first year, the quality begins to deteriorate. Fresh, uncooked ham should be cooked within five days. It will freeze for up to six months. Cured ham can be frozen for three to four months.

Dry-Cured Ham

Ham can be either wet-cured or dry-cured. In wet curing, the ham is submerged in brine and may also be injected with brine. When dry-curing, the curing mixture is spread on the surface of the ham.

Because the ham must be held at a cold temperature for a long time, dry-cured ham was historically done in winter. You can make salt-cured ham in the fridge at a temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but if you're curing multiple hams, plan to do it in the colder months and use natural refrigeration.

Prepare a curing mix of 4 parts salt to 1 part sugar. Add a few ounces of curing salt, which is available in the canning section of a store or online. Divide the mixture into two equal parts.

Rub half of the curing mixture all over the surface of the fresh ham. Set the ham in a cool place where the temperature won't rise above 40F. After seven days, apply the second half of the curing mixture. Make note of the weight of the ham — dry-cured ham takes 1 1/2 days per pound to cure.

Soak the cured ham in a tub of cold water for one hour. Use a stiff brush to scrub the surface of the ham; then allow it to dry.

Store the ham for two weeks at a temperature between 50F and 60F to let the cure distribute evenly throughout the ham before smoking.

Smoking Dry-Cured Ham

Once the ham is cured, cold-smoke it at about 90F until it turns chestnut brown. This may take as long as three days. Use hardwood like hickory, oak or ash. Don't use wood with resin such as pine or spruce that will impart a bitter flavor.

Hot-smoking a ham takes about 24 hours. Start at 125F to dry the ham; then increase the heat to 135F. After about eight hours, increase the heat to 180F and continue to smoke it until the internal temperature of the ham reaches 150F.

If you don't have a smoker or a smokehouse, rub the ham with a combination of black pepper, brown sugar, molasses, and a few ounces of curing salt and cayenne. Wrap the ham in plain (not waxed) butcher paper and age it for one to four months at a temperature of 75F to 95F in a room with 55 to 65 percent humidity. Unsmoked ham must be cooked before serving.

Wet-Cured Ham

Brining fresh pork is the least labor-intensive method for curing meat the old-fashioned way. Make a brine of water, kosher or table salt, sugar and curing salts. Put the pork in a crock or large pot and pour the brine over it. Use a weight — a heavy plate will do — to keep the pork submerged; cover the pot and put it in the refrigerator.

Make a note of the weight of the pork — it will cure in the brine at the rate of 2 pounds per day. If you have a large piece of meat, use a kitchen syringe to inject brine into the center.

Brined hams can be cooked and eaten as-is or smoked.

Curing Bacon

Bacon curing follows steps similar to dry-curing ham, but it's less labor-intensive. Make a curing rub and pat it all over unsliced, skin-on pork belly. Put the pork belly in a zip-top bag and place it in the refrigerator for a week to 10 days. Turn over the bag once a day. The bacon is ready when it feels firm to the touch.

Remove the bacon from the bag, rinse it and pat it dry. Let it air-dry on a rack, uncovered, in the fridge for 48 hours. At this point, you can smoke the bacon at 200F until the internal temperature reaches 150F, or roast it in the oven at 200F for two hours. Remove the rind and slice the bacon.

An old-fashioned bacon cure recipe calls for 8 pounds of salt, 3 pounds of sugar and 2 1/2 ounces of curing salts. This is probably too much for an average pork belly, but you can store any of the leftover curing mixture in an airtight jar or zip-top bag.

Jazz up the curing mix by adding brown sugar and herbs and spices like paprika, red pepper flakes, black pepper and thyme.

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