Common Questions

Questions Most Frequently Asked About Cured Pork.*

Basically, What is the Curing Process?

     Curing is the addition of salt, sugar, sodium nitrates (or saltpeter), nitrites and sometimes phosphates and ascorbates to meat for preservation, color development and flavor enhancement.

     Nitrates and nitrites contribute to the characteristic cured flavor and reddish-pink color of cured meat.  They also prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum, a food poisoning microorganism that can occur in foods requiring heat processing.

Why is Cured Pork Aged?

     Aging is the critical period of time in which the distinguished home-cured flavor of pork is allowed to develop.  It may be compared to the aging of a fine wine or cheese

What is the Dry Cure Process?

     In the dry cure technique, ham is rubbed with the dry curing mixture (salt and sodium nitrate) and allowed to stand until the meat is permeated.  Salt will only penetrate the meat in the form of liquid brine.  Dry salt forms brine when it comes into contact with the natural juice of the ham.  This is a slow method used to cure Italian Prosciutto, country and Virginia hams.

What Role does “Smoking” play in the Curing Process?

     The word “smoked” defines a process by which meat (ham) is hung in a smokehouse and allowed to absorb smoke from smoldering fires.  This give added flavor and color to meat as well as serves to dry cure the pork and slow the development of rancidity.  Aromatic hardwood logs such as hickory, are often used for the smoking.

What is a Virginia Style or Country Ham?

     A country ham is meat taken from the hind leg of a pig and processed using a dry cure.  It may or may not have been smoked, but it is aged.  Country hams are often rubbed with a mixture containing black pepper, molasses and brown sugar for extra flavor.

     A country or Virginia style ham may have either a long or short shank.  The long shank ham is long cured having been aged six months or longer.  Long shank hams are full flavored and may require soaking before cooking.  However, many prefer the pungent flavor of the unsoaked, long cured ham and enjoy their ham carved in very thin slices.  Short shank country or Virginia style hams are short cured, having been aged less than six months hence the flavor is not quite as strong.

What are Tenderized, Sugar Cured Packers or Smoked Hams?

     These terms denote hams that have been artery-pumped with a curing solution, then hung at room temperature for four hours and smoked until the exterior has reached the desired pinkish-red color.  Such hams can be bought fully cooked and will be labeled as “ready to eat”.

Is Ham a Nutritious Food?

     Ham is a very nutritious food.  It is an excellent source of protein and contains a significant amount of the B vitamins which that  essential for a good appetite, good mental health and healthy skin.  These vitamins include thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin.

Where is the Best Place to Store a Cured Country Ham?

     It is better to hang a country ham in a cool dry place until ready for use.  Don not lie the ham down flat on a shelf or table because it will absorb moisture from other substances just like a sponge.  Hang in a cool, dry place so it will not touch the wall or other hams.  Ham will keep in good condition as long as desired, without refrigeration

Should Country Cured Hams that Show Signs of Mold be Discarded?

   NO!  Absolutely not!  Virginia and country hams may be covered with mold, a normal characteristic.  It is the same type of harmless mold found in aged cheeses.  It is formed during the curing process by a reaction of the moisture from the ham with heat and humidity in the air.  DO NOT DISCARD your ham.  Simply wash it in hot water and scrub off the mold with a stiff vegetable brush.

Is there Any Way to Reduce the Salty Taste of Country Ham?

     Country cured ham has a characteristic salty, smoky taste.  Saltiness can be reduced by soaking ham prior to cooking it.

     If ham is still too salty after cooking, it can be soaked again and cooked again for a shorter time period.

     The salty taste of cured ham slices can be reduced by frying slices in a skillet that contains about one-fourth inch of water.  This will dilute the salt concentration and result in a less salty product.

Can Cured Pork Products be Frozen?

     Yes, bacon and frankfurters can be frozen for one month or less.  Freezing is not recommended for uncooked country ham.  After cooking, country ham can be frozen.

How Long can Cooked Country Ham be Refrigerated

     A whole cooked country ham, properly wrapped in vapor / moisture proof material, can be kept refrigerated (at 40 degrees F, or below) as long as two months.

     Properly wrapped cook country ham slices can be refrigerated for three to four weeks at the most.

How should Cured Pork be Cooked?

     Because Virginia cured hams are dry salt cured, they may need to be soaked before cooking.  The length of time of soaking is important and should be influenced by the individual’s taste for salt.  Longer soaking results in milder hams.

    To Prepare:

     Follow instructions on the wrapper or use the following directions.  Scrub ham thoroughly in warm water using a stiff brush.  Soak short cure ham 4 to 8 hours or do not soak if full flavor is desired.  If a milder flavor is preferred, soak ham 12 hours or longer.  Soak long cure ham in cold water 10 / 12 hours or overnight.  Change the water after 10 hours.  The ham may be scrubbed after soaking.

    To Cook:

     Place ham in a large cooking utensil, skin side down.  Cover with fresh water.  Bring the water to 180 degrees F (not quite simmering).  Then allow to simmer covered.  Add hot water when necessary to keep ham covered.  Cook until done, about 20 to 25 minutes per pound or until an internal temperature of 160 degrees is reached.  The ham is cooked when the flat (pelvic) bone can move easily.

     Lift ham from the utensil.  Remove skin, allowing a 1/4 inch fat covering on ham for scoring.  Dot the surface with cloves if desired and sprinkle with brown sugar or bread crumbs with brown sugar (or preferred glaze) and brown in a 400 degree F oven for approximately 15 minutes.

    Alternate Method:

     This method is recommended to be used only when preparing short cure or long cure country hams and does not require a large vessel.  Soak ham as described in the above directions, then wash and scrub thoroughly.  Wrap in heavy duty aluminum foil, joining the edges carefully and forming a vessel with the bottom layer.  Add 4 cups of water for a short cure ham or 5 cups of water for a long cure ham within the foil and place in oven with a tray or shallow pan underneath for support.  Cook by the following method:

  • Place ham in cold oven and set temperature to 400 degrees F.
  • When the oven has reached 400 degrees, cook the ham for 20 minutes.
  • Turn off the oven for 3 hours, leaving the ham inside.
  • Reheat oven to 400 degrees F and cook ham for another 20 minutes.
  • Turn off oven and let the ham remain in oven for 6 to 8 hours or longer (overnight is satisfactory).
  • Complete preparation as described in directions for cooking Virginia cured hams.

* Information provided by the Virginia Pork Industry Board and the
Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services 

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Web page Updated January 4, 2014
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