How to make your own ham – plus a bonus recipe

It just keep getting better. Last year I made my own bacon (cured and smoked pork belly) and fabulous homemade pastrami (a corned beef brisket coated in spices and smoked). Most recently, and using similar process, I made ham as well.

It’s pretty easy to locate an uncured ham bone in most grocery stores, or your butcher should be able to hook you up with one. A pork shoulder cut would also work.

The idea is that you let the bone-in pork leg cure in a wet brine for about a day for every two pounds, then you let it sit uncovered in your fridge for another day or so, and then you smoke it until it’s reached 160 internal temperature.

There was some disagreement in the various recipes I read about the part in between the wet brining and the uncovered setting; some recipes said to let the hams soak overnight in water to get out the excess salt, and others said just to give it a good rinse. Since I had two hams, I did both. The ham that soaked overnight in water was obviously less salty, so I coated it in apple butter halfway through the smoking process. In the end, I had a sweeter ham and a saltier ham, but both of them were very tasty and made a few excellent meals.

Recipe for the wet brine:

  • 2 liters water
  • 3/4 cup kosher salt
  • 1 cup turbinado sugar
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 3 tsp. pink curing salt
  • whole cloves (optional)

Measure how much liquid brine you will need by first placing the hams in your plastic container to judge the volume. I had to double the recipe, but I used two small hams (about 4 lbs. each). As you can see, I also needed a pretty big plastic container to hold both hams. Make sure you get one with a lid and make sure it can fit in your fridge (I had to measure the interior of my refrigerator just to make sure).

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The ham(s) sit in the brine (covered) for about a day for every two pounds of meat. Then I let one ham soak in water, and then both of them sat uncovered for a day. This lets a pellicle form over the meat, which is an invisible, sticky film that seems to act as a glue for the tasty smoke.

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I used hickory and applewood chips, and changed the positions of the hams halfway through the smoking.

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I also coated the sweeter ham (the one that sat in water overnight) with my homemade spiced apple butter. It added a perfectly spiced and apple-y flavor without too much sweetness.

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The hams need to smoke at about 300 degrees or less until they reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees. It should take about 6 hours.

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This year I threw a party on Christmas Eve; I planned out ahead of time how long the process would take so I could smoke the hams on Christmas Eve and we could all eat them for dinner. I have to say that despite the weather being unexpectedly cold and rainy (I live in San Diego so it really was a surprise to have weather in December), thus keeping my smoker’s temperature down and leading to a delayed dinner, the hams were a great success.

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Both of the hams were delicious for dinner, then the next few days’ breakfast (ham and eggs, a nice hammy omelette) and lunch (ham and cheese sandwiches), and a few days later, when little remained but the smoked ham bones, the bones were tossed in the crock pot with carrots, onions, peppers, spices and black-eyed peas that had been soaking overnight, and it made an insanely wonderful black-eyed peas dish for New Year’s Day.

ham recipe card

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Bonus Recipe: Black-Eyed Peas

  • 1 ham bone, stripped of most of the meat
  • 1 1-lb. bag of black-eyed peas, rinsed and soaked in water for at least 12 hours
  • 1 large red onion, chopped
  • 10-12 pearl onions
  • 1 head of garlic, diced
  • 3-4 large carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 2-3 dried chilis
  • 2 tbsp. each salt, black pepper, paprika and cumin
  • 1 quart vegetable or chicken stock
  • fresh spinach leaves, for serving

After soaking, draining and rinsing the black-eyed peas (soak them at least 12 hours), place them in the crock pot with all of the other ingredients except the spinach. Simmer on low heat for 16 hours or more. Check periodically and add more liquid if necessary. Serve with fresh spinach leaves (which will wilt when the hot beans are added).

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Baked Ham your way and Split Pea Soup

This year, I plan to try making my own ham from “scratch,” i.e., buying a pork hock and curing and smoking it to hammy perfection. However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with buying a pre-made ham (fully cooked) with minimal or no added water or solutions.

I like to buy a half-ham — always bone-in — and glaze it with something amazing. Once I have had my fill of ham dinners, ham sandwiches, ham and eggs, ham Quiche, and had a ham-eating party for everyone I know (seriously, there is always 10x more ham than I think there is), I boil the ham bone for an amazing, hearty, crock-pot soup.

There are a number of different ways to glaze and baste your ham. Just prepare a glaze based on your favorites or tastes, and bake at 350 degrees for about 3 hours (a bone-in half-ham needs to be baked for about 18-20 minutes per pound).

If you prefer a strong flavor, I would suggest a hoppy beer like Arrogant Bastard or Guinness. If you prefer something sweeter and shinier, try a cup of frozen concentrated orange juice, mixed with balsamic or malt vinegar and a dash of honey. Or just mix a teensy drop of hot water with honey and spices like coriander and brown sugar. I also love Alton Brown’s drool-inducing “City Ham” recipe where he coats the ham with mustard, brown sugar and crushed ginger snaps, then lovingly spritzes the ham with bourbon as it bakes. That’s awesome.

Once you have enjoyed your ham dinners and ham breakfasts and ham lunches and brunches, make this soup. I like to place the entire ham bone, with all the hammy remnants clinging to it, into a large crock pot or heavy-bottomed pot on your stove. In my experience, the dried peas sometimes cling to the bottom of a stovetop pot, and this soup definitely requires slow-cooking. Since I prefer everything I make to be as easy and hands-off as possible (seriously, I will happily let that pot do all the cooking for me), I would highly recommend using a crock-pot instead of a pot on the stove.

Place the ham bone in the pot and add a full bag of dried peas. Chop up an onion, a few carrots and celery stalks, and a few cloves of fresh garlic. Then fill the pot with water (no bouillon or stock needed).  If you like your stew to be more starchy, add a diced potato. If you like extra spice, drop a jalapeño pepper in there. Put it on the high setting and let it simmer for 6-8 hours, or until the meat is falling off of the ham bone.

You may have noticed that the cooking time for this soup is approximately the same as a standard work day. This is not an accident. The longer this soup simmers, the more the flavors will come out, the softer the meat will get and the more meat will come off of that bone. You can prepare this in the morning before you leave for work, and when you come home, all you have to do is remove the now-clean bone from the pot, and dinner is served. If you get stuck in traffic on the way home and it cooks for more than 8 hours, that’s OK.