For me, the holidays aren’t complete without the smell of wood charring over an open flame. Back in Texas it was no thang to fire up the pit and slow smoke a brisket for 8 to 10 hours for Christmas dinner. Living further north means that I now have to brave icy temperatures, snow, and even gusting winds during the winter months. My hands were freezing out basting this locally sourced ham Christmas day but that’s what the fire is for, right? Since it was Christmas after all, the extra effort felt worth it but let’s be honest here, I’m really just looking for any excuse to man my grill.
This was my first attempt at curing and smoking a fresh shank and I am definitely addicted to it now. My whole life I’ve loved ham at Christmas but the store bought ones always made me sick for two to three days and ain’t nobody got time for that! So for years I begrudgingly gave up one of my favorite holiday entrees. However, one of the benefits of growing comfortable with purchasing my meats from local farmers, or in this case my local butcher, is that inspiration is never in short supply. I decided to give creating this holiday favorite from scratch a chance to see if it was merely all the additives and chemicals in the precooked ones that was the issue, and sure enough my intuition was spot on.
I began by ringing up Herman’s Quality Meats, and with a little help from the incredibly wonderful folks there, ordered a 10lb bone-in ham shank (along with a pound of fresh ground wild boar…..recipe pending). I decided to have the butcher leave the skin on the shank since I figured the skin could blacken up from the mop sauce, which I could then easily cut off and discard protecting the actual meat (Disclaimer: this country girl snacked on some of that pork skin!). This method worked out perfectly and kept the ham extra moist and tender as well.
Now with my Christmas ham ordered, the next thing on my to-do list was to hunt down pink curing salt, which I was finally able to procure from Kitchen & Co. Admittedly the most intimidating aspect of this recipe was 1. there’s not much information out there about home curing and 2. sodium nitrate demands respect and precision. I decided to err on the side of caution and only used 1 tsp of the recommended 2.5 tsp of pink salt for a 10lb fresh shank. Next year I’ll bump it up to 2 tsp. While out on my hunt for the pink salt, I also serendipitously stumbled upon Plum wood chunks and decided to smoke the ham with that instead of my go-to Pecan. The flavor turned out phenomenal and these leftovers just keep tasting better and better.
For this recipe you will also need a brining bag, food grade brining bucket or stock pot, and plenty of space in your fridge. If curing the shank yourself seems a little too intimidating no need to despair! Just brine the shank as you would any other cut of pork with equal parts regular salt and sugar. The only difference is that the end result (without the pink salt) will be more like the texture of pork loin rather than “ham”. Both results are equally delicious however so it’s totally up to you. I’m adventurous in the kitchen, as it is one of my greatest joys and when I challenge myself with new cooking techniques my creativity flourishes. This in no way means that if you decide to brine your shank for 2 to 24 hours without pink salt and then choose to roast it off in the oven that the flavor or quality of the ham will be poorly affected. It’s a personal choice. For me though, curing it myself and spending the day back and forth managing the coals, the smoke permeating my hair and clothes, basting it with a homemade Cranberry bbq sauce made my holiday complete.
So whether you cure the ham and smoke it or brine it and roast it, just have fun in the kitchen and know that a locally sourced fresh ham is not as difficult to prepare as you might initially believe. I actually spent more time cozily snuggled up in front of my fireplace catching up on my recipe posts than out managing the ham shank. Just cook from the heart and everything else will fall into place and remember that a family that cooks together, stays together.
Plum Smoked Ham Shank
Ingredients for the Cure:
1 10lb bone-in, skin on ham shank
1 tsp to 2.5 tsp Pink Salt
1 cup Water, plus enough to later submerge the shank
2 sprigs Rosemary
1/2 an Orange, sliced
1 tsp Juniper Berries
1 dried Chile de Arbol, optional
3 tbsp Pickling spice
1/2 cup Kosher Salt
1/2 cup Brown Sugar
3 tbsp Maple syrup, optional
1 tsp Black Peppercorns
In a med saucepan over high flame, bring all ingredients (except the ham shank) to a boil. Stir until all the salt and sugar dissolves. Turn off the flame and allow the brine to completely cool.
Score the skin of the shank with a sharp knife in a cross hatch pattern. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect. As you can tell from the pics, I need a lot more practice with this! Since I intended to discard the skin anyway, it really wasn’t too big a deal to me. Once the skin is scored, add the shank to the brining bag then place that inside a brining bucket or large stock pot. Pour the completely cooled brine into the brining bag and then add enough water to completely submerge the shank. Tightly seal the brining bag and place the bucket or stock pot in the fridge. Allow the ham to cure for 7 days.
The 7 day cure will transform the shank into that familiar “ham” flavor and color we all recognize and love.
Alternately: prepare the above brine and omit the curing salt. Brine the shank in the fridge 2 to 24 hours. Proceed with remaining recipe.
Plum Smoke Ingredients:
1 10lb Cured (or brined) Ham Shank
6 to 8 Plum wood chunks, soaked in water at least 24 hours
1 to 2 tsp Salt and pepper
lump charcoal, or charcoal of choice
Sheet of aluminum foil
4 cups hot Water
Optional: dried orange, grapefruit, and apple slices
Remove ham shank from the cure (or brine), rinse off, and place on a large platter. Discard curing liquid. Pat the ham dry. Generously salt and pepper the outside of the shank, being sure to get salt and pepper inside the score marks. Set the ham in the fridge, uncovered, overnight.
The following morning, prepare a charcoal grill by setting the drip pan on one side of the grill and stacking the charcoal on the other. Add the hot water to the drip pan along with the dried fruit, if using. Place 2/3 of the soaked wood chunks on top of the charcoals and the other third inside the drip pan. Light the coals, place the grill rack back in place, and allow the coals to heat up until they are grayish white in color.
Once the coals are hot, place the shank over the drip pan. Fold a sheet of aluminum foil in half and use as a “tent” in front of the shank to help protect against burning and flare ups. Refer to above pics, if needed. Cover the grill and adjust the airflow vents so that the grill maintains a temperature of 250 to 325 degrees. Smoke the ham 6 to 8 hours, basting every hour or so with bbq or mop sauce of choice, adding additional coals as needed to maintain the temperature (a chimney starter is easiest for this). Once the ham reaches an internal temperature of at least 150 degrees, remove it from the heat and allow it to rest no less than 20 minutes. Once rested, remove the outer charred skin and discard. Trim fat and discard or save if for use in future recipes (anything you’d use bacon in, this pork fat can be used in as well). Slice and serve immediately with your favorite holiday sides.
Once the ham has cooled entirely (I usually do this the following morning) break down the ham. Discard all the outer charred skin. Trim the fat and discard or keep it separate to use in place of bacon. Store the ham in airtight containers in the fridge to use in recipes throughout the week or freeze it for future use. Save the bone for stock or discard.
Alternately: smoke the ham for 2 to 4 hours and finish bringing it up to temp in a 375 degree oven.
Cranberry BBQ Sauce
1 cup leftover Cranberry sauce, or Cranberry sauce of choice (I used Amy’s leftover cranberry sauce from Thanksgiving that I froze specifically for this recipe)
1 cup Chicken Stock
3 tbsp Maple syrup, or to taste
1 tsp Penzeys BBQ 3000 seasoning
1/2 tsp Garlic powder
1 tbsp Brown sugar
2 tbsp Dijon Mustard, or to taste
Salt and lots of cracked black pepper
In a med saucepan, whisk in all ingredients until well incorporated. Bring to a simmer over med flame and continue to reduce until desired thickness. I reduced this a little less than I would a normal bbq sauce since I was basting with it. Taste and adjust seasonings, as needed. Use as a mop sauce for the above smoked ham recipe.