Country-cured Ham: The Aging Process, Mold, and Preparation

Baked Ham
Baked Ham. © 2006 Peggy Trowbridge Filippone

Country cured hams offer a smoked, gourmet, and unique flavor. This traditional recipe was created by early American colonists who salted hams and let them cure in seasonal temperature changes. Curing is a meal and flavoring preservation process used by farmers, chefs, and food scientists to transform meat, fish, or vegetables.

Many eaters of this delicacy wonder if it is safe to eat moldy country ham.

While most people know to throw away moldy food, country ham is an exception. Country hams develop an unattractive layer of the mold during the curing process. This is normal and an indication of proper aging, much like fine cheeses. However, the mold resulting from the aging must be removed before the meat is cooked. It is not safe to eat the mold itself, but the ham is perfectly fine to eat.

The Country Ham Process

Country-cured hams are cured with a mixture of salt, sodium nitrate (saltpeter) or nitrite, and sometimes sugar and other spices. The salt draws out the moisture, leaving an environment inhospitable to bacteria growth. The nitrate or nitrite not only protects against botulinum bacteria but also gives the ham its deep rosy pink color. Sugar is a tenderizer, and additional spices give various corresponding flavors.

Mold and Ham

Mostly harmless molds are found on country cured ham but some molds can produce mycotoxins.

This process happens during the long curing and drying process due to the high salt and low temperatures. Regardless, the ham does not need to be discarded and is perfectly fine to eat. Ensure to wash it with hot water and scrub off the mold with a stiff vegetable brush prior to smoking or cooking.

Storing Country-cured Ham

Cured ham is technically one which has not yet been cooked yet. It will keep in the fridge for five to seven days or until the “use-by” date listed. If not cooked by that time, you can freeze it for about three to four months. After it is cooked, cured hams will keep in the refrigerator for roughly three to five days. After this period of time, it can be frozen for up to two months before going bad. Country ham that has been already been cooked, cut and sliced thin will keep for around a month in the refrigerator. Following this time, it can be frozen up to another month.

Specific Preparation Instructions

Country ham requires special arrangements. Whether you are cooking a whole or half country ham, it is important to plan to soak in the refrigerator, which can take anywhere from four to 12 hours. After this process is done, cover the country ham with water and boil it for 20 to 25 minutes per pound. Then, drain the pot, glaze the ham, and cook it in the oven until it's golden brown. The ham can be cooked at about 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes total.