Say you have a whole ham and your wife, named Donna, doesn't want the thing hanging in your closet for a year, drying out for prosciutto. Or you live in a fifth-floor walk-up in Manhattan and don't have a wife named Donna but you also don't have a closet, let alone a drying room. Or you have a whole ham but do not have a holiday dinner to prepare and fourteen people to feed.
Such is usually the case, in fact, so what do you do with a whole ham? I get this question all the time. The answer is that you break it down into smaller, delectable parts. Here's what one butcher, Rob Levitt, of Chicago's The Butcher & Larder, does with his ham. It's difficult of course to put into words exactly where to draw a knife blade through a large cut. The only way truly to learn is by doing it.
You're going to make mistakes, put a gash in an otherwise gorgeous top loin, for instance. That's OK! You can still eat it! Next time you'll know—that's how you learn. Just remember that the ham is a heavily worked part of the body so many, though not all, of its muscles can be tough, and therefore must be tenderized mechanically (that is by slicing thinly across the grain or by pounding) or with moist heat (this is, by cooking it low and slow). But it also contains some of the tastiest meat on the pig and has abundant skin (rich in the protein collagen, which will melt into gelatin). Brian Polcyn and I write a lot about what to do with whole hams in our books Charcuterie and Salumi, transforming them with salt and time. Here's how Rob Levitt (@butcherlarder) transforms the big ham with that invaluable kitchen tool we call a really sharp knife. (Photography by the excellent Huge Galdones.)
How to Turn a Big Fresh Ham into Delicious Smaller Cuts
by Rob Levitt
For those of you who love the idea of "nose-to-tail" eating but find offal … off-putting ... I have good news. While I'm thrilled there are so many chefs and butchers buying whole animals and focusing on total utilization, and no longer too conservative to put a tongue, foot, or kidney on their menus, this kind of cooking still eludes many ambitious home cooks. While lamb, venison, and other larger beasts offer all kinds of uses, the nose-to-tail champion is the pig. And the biggest single cut of the pig, the fresh ham, has so much more to offer cooks than cooking or dry-curing it whole.
Ask a pig farmer which parts of the pig he has the most trouble selling and he’ll say, likely without hesitation, the ham. These days with the overwhelming popularity of testa, headcheese, and anything on a menu containing "pig face," or cheeks, I would have a harder time procuring pigs heads than hams.
If you say "ham" to a farmer or butcher, they immediately think raw pork, but if you say ham to just about anyone else it means anything from prosciutto to honey-glazed and spiral-cut. To clarify, a fresh ham is the back leg of a pig and can be put to use in countless different ways.
It can, in fact, be cooked whole as a roast. Often brined first, it does fabulously in place of a suckling pig on a spit or in a smoker as a large roasting joint for a party. But the parts that make up the whole are what I’m interested in.
We are all familiar with a smoked ham hock. Deliciously sticky and smoky, it is the best thing for your split pea soup or red beans and rice, but as a fresh, unsmoked cut of meat it also has a lot to offer. It is a fantastic braising cut with a surprising amount of unctuous, lip-smacking meat and can be dropped into the crock pot before work to be ready for dinner when you get home. At Cochon in New Orleans I had a fresh hock that had been braised, coated with mustardy bread crumbs. and finished in their wood oven. Fantastic. To remove the hock, cut through the skin and meat about 4 inches down from the top of the hock. Cut all the way around the hock and saw through the bone. (Here's an inexpensive saw if you want one—they're called meat saws, why, I have no idea; they cut through bone, not meat. Please use a knife for the meat, not a saw. If you don't want a saw in the kitchen, a butcher will cut the shank for you, or specify that you'd like the hock off when you order the pig or the ham—M.R.)
Perhaps you are looking for something to throw on the grill, but are tired of the usual chops and feel tenderloin is a bore. Try a pork sirloin steak. Removing the sirloin is a bit tricky. Find the aitch bone—part of the pelvis that remains on the ham cut—and cut along the top of it and straight down.
Look for the aitch, or hip, bone (it is easy to spot at the base of the ham) and cut along the bone with the tip of your knife. It will curve up toward the top of the aitch and you should be able to connect the two cuts. Pull back on the aitch bone toward you and find the ball and socket joint. Slide the tip of your knife between the ball and socket and sever the tendon holding the two together. At this point you should be able to follow along the shape of the bone and remove it cleanly. Remember to keep your knife against the bone and take your time. To remove the sirloin, cut straight across just below the ball joint. (While I'm doing my best to describe this in words, the only real way to learn is to do it yourself. Use your common sense, find your own way—always avoiding waste if you make a mistake—and don't be hard on yourself.)
Trim any tough looking bits of meat (there is usually an easily removable flap with lots of connective tissue just below where the ball joint was) and trim into a roughly rectangular roast and score (or remove) the skin. Sliced into steaks, the sirloin has tons of flavor and is a great value. Cooked over indirect heat on a grill, the fat picks up great smokiness and the skin gets crispy.
The sirloin also makes for a delicious boneless roast. Complete with cracklin’ skin, it is a fun and economical alternative to a loin roast.
The top round of pork—the big inside muscle when the ham is on its side, skin-side down—is the perfect cut for a simple, lean, and tender roast. It can be cut into chunks for kabobs, sliced thin and marinated for tacos or fajitas, or cooked like a pot roast and shaved for a unique and delicious "French Dip" sandwich. To remove the top round, face the ham with the ball joint at four o’clock. With the tip of your knife, cut just behind the ball and against the femur bone to find the natural seam.
Once you see the silver skin, follow it up toward the hock, making sure to keep your knife against the bone. As the top round frees from the ham, pull it away from the bone as you cut.
Cutting downward, you will find a large, somewhat obvious seam of fat and tissue. Cut along this seam and the top round will peel off easily.
Once the top round is removed, cut along the femur and remove it along with the remaining hock meat. Separate the joint and save the femur for stock (or pork marrow on toast—delicious!) and the hock for mini pulled pork or a simple braise.
As a cook, I have very little love for pork tenderloin. Though tender, I find it bland and boring. For my taste and for anyone’s budget the pork eye round is a great, lean grilling cut. The eye round is the long, thin muscle on the side of the ham visible after you cut off the top round. It is easy to find the seam at the hock end. Once located, follow it with your fingers down to the base of the ham, freeing up the muscle as much as possible. Use the tip of your knife to free it from the rest of the ham and trim away any fat and connective tissue. Similar in shape to the tenderloin and very lean, it soaks up a brine or marinade exceptionally well. It may not be meltingly tender like a tenderloin, but its extra bit of chew is made up for by the porky wallop it hits you with. The eye round is great sliced thin—slicing it thinly is a form of tenderizing—for stir-fry and is a versatile cut for the grill, broiler, or skillet and best left with a blush of pink in the center. This will be my go-to cut this summer for the grill.
Another great alternative to the pork loin is the bottom round. The meat has a shorter grain so it isn’t quite as tender, but this same quality gives the cut an uncanny ability to soak up a brine. Set the whole piece (around 3 pounds) in a tub of beer, salt (a 10% brine is perfect for short times), and spices; an hour or two later you have a juicy, lean, and incredibly flavorful pork roast perfect for a crowd. The bottom round does great cut into chunks and skewered, sliced thin for cutlets or a bit thicker as an alternative to boneless chops.
It is easily separated from the sirloin tip by following along the natural seam.
You will have a long, somewhat rectangular piece of meat with a nice layer of fat on one side. Fat side down, find the heavy silver skin on either side of the muscle and remove it.
Trim any other bits of connective tissue and trim the muscle into a uniform rectangular roast. I usually score the fat … because it’s pretty.
What remains is great for cutting into chunks for skewering, or grinding into sausage and pâté.
To be clear, these cuts wont change your life. You are not going to grill a pork eye round and never want a chop again, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a delicious, easy to cook cut of meat. One of my biggest challenges as a whole animal butcher is providing plenty of cuts suitable for all methods of cooking in all price ranges. Just because you can’t afford a pork loin roast it shouldn’t mean you are limited to sausages, ground pork, or stew meat. And while I love offal and its recent rise in popularity, it isn’t the only way to cook and eat with a sustainable, nose-to-tail mentality. The fresh ham is a bit uncharted, but as sustainability becomes more and more important we should recognize that there are a lot of great options between the nose and that curly, little tail.
If you liked this post, you might be interested in these links:
- My posts on making bacon, corned beef, or Canadian bacon.
- Other local butcher shops: Lindy & Grundy, the Meat Hook, and the Spotted Trotter.
- Heritage Foods and Local Harvest can help you find local meats.
© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.