Smoked, cured and cooked hams have their place at the holiday table or for sandwiches, but a fresh ham is an entirely different product. These hams are usually a good value and are large enough for a crowd. They have a lot of connective tissue, which can make them tough, but when you cook them over low heat, they become juicy and tender. Make sure you know which type of ham you're using -- a picnic ham, a country ham or a leg of pork -- because the preparation methods vary slightly.
1. Fresh Hams 101
Most of the hams sold in supermarkets have already been cooked and you can serve them at room temperature or reheat them. In terms of fresh hams, you have three options -- a fresh, roast leg of pork, a country ham or a picnic ham. A fresh leg of pork has been neither smoked nor cured. A whole leg weighs about 20 pounds -- enough to feed a crowd -- but you can ask for a half leg. Country hams are available mostly in gourmet butcher shops and through online vendors. These hams are true hams -- coming from the hind legs of the hog. They've been dry-cured in salt, smoked and aged -- but not cooked. Picnic hams aren't true hams because they come from the shoulder of the hog. Generally, they haven't been smoked, but are sold fresh. Picnic hams are the classic choice for pulled pork barbecue. You can slow cook or barbecue both types. Cover the ham with foil once you've removed the ham from the heat and let it rest for 15 minutes before slicing.
2. Cooking a Country Ham
Soak a country ham in clean cold water for 24 hours to remove some of the salt. Keep the ham refrigerated at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler during this time. Drain and rinse the ham well. Place the ham in a large Dutch oven or stock pot and then add water to partially cover the ham. Place a lid on the pot and let it simmer on the stove or in the oven for two to three hours at 325 F, or until it becomes tender and a meat thermometer inserted in the ham registers 110 F. At this point, you can place it on the grill. Heat the grill to 300 F, but leave one burner off. If you're using a coal grill, set the coals to one side. Place some wood chips soaked in water on aluminum foil and wrap the foil to make a packet. Place this packet under the grill grate to create smoke. Cook the country ham for about one hour, or until the meat develops a crispy crust and a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest portion of the meat registers 145 F.
3. Picnic Ham or Leg of Pork
Cooking a picnic ham or leg of pork is a bit simpler because you don't need to soak the ham or braise it first. Heat your grill to 300 F, leaving one burner off. If you're using a charcoal grill, set the coals on one side of the grill. Pile some wood chips soaked in water on sheets of aluminum foil and wrap the foil into several packets. Place one packet under the grate. Set the meat directly on the grate over indirect heat or place it on a rack in a roasting pan. Close the lid and cook the ham for three hours, or until a meat thermometer inserted in the ham registers 145 F. Replace the wood chips occasionally when they stop smoking. If you want pulled pork, cook the ham for four to six hours, or until a meat thermometer inserted in the ham registers 195 F. At this temperature, the meat will fall apart easily.
4. Spicing It Up
Smoking and barbecuing a fresh ham will add lots of flavor, but don't forget the seasonings. Brush a country ham or picnic ham with a glaze made from apricot jelly mixed with soy sauce and garlic, or simply top it with brown sugar during the last 20 minutes of grilling. If you're making pulled pork, spread a rub made of brown sugar, salt, paprika and chili powder over the meat 24 hours before you grill. Cover and refrigerate the meat at 40 F. Slather the meat with a mop made of diluted barbecue sauce and vinegar several times during the cooking process. Mix the shredded meat with barbecue sauce or serve the sauce on the side.
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