For centuries, salting and smoking were essential for preserving meat and fish. While refrigeration may have lessened the need for these techniques, refrigeration has not decreased the taste for the results. Both salt pork and pork hock gain their deliciousness from salt preserving. To that, ham hock adds the appeal of smokiness. Despite a shared heritage, salt pork functions as a substitute for ham hock only as a seasoning ingredient.
About Smoked Ham Hock
Pork hock comes from the lowest part of the leg and is usually sold skin-on. A layer of fat surrounds meat and bone. After being preserved in a salt-brine, pork hock becomes ham hock when smoked. In flavor, fat content and salt content, ounce-for-ounce smoked ham hock is very similar to bacon. To make it edible, however, it needs soaking and an hour or more of simmering.
Cooking With Smoked Ham Hock
Cooking with several ham hocks creates a strong smoky, salty taste. Long-cooked fat and connective tissues add a smooth richness as well, in dishes like pea or bean soup, stewed greens or hopping' john. Cooked hock meat, which is somewhat chewy and stringy, is often shredded or chopped and added to the dish, as well. Ham hock enlivens the taste of bland legumes, potatoes or rice and tempers the bitterness of cooking greens. In traditional German cooking, ham hocks are cooked with and served whole, alongside sauerkraut and potatoes. Salt- or fat-conscious cooks sometimes cook a ham hock separately, adding only the meat or a small amount of the broth to a dish for seasoning.
About Salt Pork
Salt pork brings a similar salty, fatty richness to bean, potato and greens dishes but there its similarities to ham hock end. While ham hock contains a mixture of meat and fat, salt pork is essentially pure fat. Both salt pork and bacon are cut from the back and belly of the pig, hence the frequent nickname of fatback. Leaner portions are cured, and then smoked, as bacon, while salt pork is salt-cured only. The result is, ounce- for-ounce, twice as salty as either bacon or ham hock, with a negligible protein content.
Cooking With Salt Pork
Recipes for fried salt pork in gravy date from early pioneer history, when a pork barrel contained most of the meat flavor families saw through winter. For centuries, French cuisine and other cultures used salt pork to augment the fattiness and enhance tenderness of lean meats like venison. Small plugs of fat, called lardoons, in inserted into meat tissue using a hollow larding needle. Nearly nine times fatter than ham hock, salt pork appears in recipes in quantities of between one and four ounces, as a flavor- and texture-enhancer. Salt pork is classic in baked-bean recipes and is often cooked with onion as a starter for New England clam chowder. Browning it intensifies flavor, and some recipes suggest, if you dislike the texture, removing it before serving the dish.
Because of its high salt- and fat-content, salt pork is not an ideal substitute for ham hock. A scant cup of broth made from a piece of fried salt pork might convey the same porky richness as a cup or two of ham-hock broth, but generally, differences in texture and bulk substantially affect recipe results. A third pork cut, thick-sliced bacon, may be a better substitute for ham hock, lending a little "chew" and smokiness as well as fat. Bacon might also serve as a seasoning if either salt pork or ham hock is hard to find in your local market. Depending on thickness, 2 to 4 slices of bacon should provide the flavor of an ounce of salt pork or the 1/2 to 1 cup of meat you can expect to get from a ham hock.
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- Old Farmer's Almanac: Preserving Meats by Salting and Brining