Ham Brining 101 – Everything You Need To Know

Ham brining

Many people want to have a great quality ham at home. Ham brining offers you that in a quick and simple way. That beautiful pink color and flavor we all like in ham, bacon or other meats can be done by curing. Curing preserves the meat. Store bought hams are salted and dry-cured for many months at a time, sometimes for years in precise conditions. The problem with hams that are mass produced is that they are machine-injected using a quick-curing ham brine, and then they are baked in large smoker-ovens. The quality of these hams is not what you will get when you do it yourself. Your home-cured ham will be much better tasting.

You will need very little equipment and a couple of days for your ham to be in the brine. The brine will improve the ham taste and quality of the flavor and texture. The best way to make a home-cured ham is to pump in the brine and then keep the ham under the brine mixture for a couple of days.

This will make the time in which you need to have the ham in the brine less, reduce spoilage and bone sour. You will know if bone sour has occurred in your ham if you have a sour smell around the bone or a sour taste to the meat around the bone.

Choosing Your Ham Cut

Your first step would be to choose the cut of pork that you want to cure. You can buy a half or whole cut of fresh ham. Pork leg cuts usually come from 15 to around 26 pounds. A Ham Butt End would be around 8-13 pounds, a Ham Shank End would be around 8-13 pounds and a Picnic Ham or Shoulder would be around 7-11 pounds. A basic look at cuts would be;

  • The higher fat content, but the more tender cut would be the Butt Half. It is the hip bone and part of the femur.
  • The less fat, sweeter and slightly darker meat would be the Shank End. It comes from the parts of the tibia, fibula, and femur.
  • The Shank end of the shoulder is the Picnic Ham. The shape of the bone is similar to the ham shank, but smaller.

You might find that is it easier to find the Picnic Ham. The Picnic Ham is economical, and easier to handle because of the size. A pork sirloin roast can also be used to cure for a small ham.

A major thing to look out for when choosing your ham is to make sure it is labeled fresh. You do not want to pick out a ham that has been cooked, cured, or labeled as enhanced with a solution. If you are unsure, ask the butcher to help you pick out a fresh ham.

types of salt for brining ham

Ingredients Needed for the Ham Brine

A classic curing bine would have: Water, Sugar, Salt, Nitrite Cure, and you may use other flavorings.

Different Types of Salts You Can Use

  • The Non-iodized or regular table salt, and sea salt is not recommended. It has an anti-caking agent and impurities.
  • Kosher salt is a good choice. It has a great taste and no additives. Kosher salt has varied sizes so you must weigh the salt, not measure it.
  • Pickling salt is the easiest and best kind of salt to use for making your home-cured ham. It is made for smoked and brined hams, inexpensive, consistent in weight, can be measured and has no impurities.

Sugar Level for Sweetness

The sugar cuts the severity of the salt and adds a nice flavor. You can use any natural sweetener that is water soluble for your ham.

  • Granulated sugar will give you a plain sweetness.
  • Brown sugar is a favorite of many people and it has a hint of molasses. The darker the brown sugar is that you use, the more molasses is in the sugar.
  • Honey can also be used, you know the flavor of honey.
  • Maple syrup can be used if you like maple, but you should also use just regular sugar with maple.

Most sweeteners have the same level of sweetness when they are measured, but can vary a lot by weight. One-third of a cup of sugar would cut the severity and you would most likely not taste the sweetness. From one cup to about a cup and a half, you will taste the sweetness and using a cup and three quarters, you would definitely taste the sweetness.

Nitrite

The reason for nitrite in your home cured ham is important. It prevents botulism, develops the flavor and color you want and keeps the fat from turning rancid. Curing salt #1 has the salt and nitrite levels that you need and are controlled separately. You can get it online if you can not find it in any local stores. It is pink in color so that people do not confuse it with other regular salts.

Levels of Nitrite

Brine-cured meat should have 120-200 parts per million of nitrate going into the meat. For a home-cured ham, it is recommended to do 120PPM.

For brining, the 1 teaspoon per 5 pounds of meat cannot be used. How much you are going to inject per pound of meat will depend on how much nitrite you are going to need per gallon. You pick your pump rate depending on how long the ham will be cured in the brine.

  • If you pump 10%, then you are going to cure your ham 6-10 days.
  • If you pump 20%, then you are going to cure your ham 4-7 days.
  • If you pump 30%, then you are going to cure your ham 3-5 days.

You will need less nitrite with the more brine you inject. This is because you are pumping more into the ham itself.

When pumping 10%, it means you are pumping 10% of the ham’s weight. Pumping 20% means you need 50% less nitrite in the brine. This is because you are now pumping in twice as much.

Injecting more brine into the meat will not affect the sugar and salt levels. The nitrite will be locked into the meat and after a few days the sugar and salt levels will push through and equalize along with the brine.

Ham brining

Water

Use distilled or filtered water. If you must use tap water, first boil the water to get rid of the chlorine and kill any pathogens. Let it cool to room temperature before you begin to mix the brine. Make sure you do not add the nitrite cure until after your water has cooled.

Adding Flavoring

Simmer the spices that you want to use and let cool. Mix the brine and spices together and make sure you count the water used in the spices when measuring your water count.

Tools You Will Need

You may already have some of these tools needed;

  • syringe meat injector
  • thermometer, to check the ham’s temperature inside
  • lidded container safe for food, or brining bag that is big enough for your ham and 1½ -3 gallons of brine. Remember it will need to fit in your refrigerator
  • a smoker or grill

Smoking You Ham

Remove your ham from the brine. Put it on a wire rack and throw out the brine. It cannot be used again.

Dry off your ham and let air dry by a fan until the ham feels sticky. There is no time limit on this process. You will just have to check it often to see if it is tacky. That tacky film is called pellicle. It is a layer of protein that will allow the smoke to stick to your brined ham. Once it is tacky, score your ham in both directions. Add your spices and smoke your ham in whatever manner your family likes their ham.

It can be hung in netting in your smoker or you can do it on the grill. If using a grill, you will want to put a good-sized chunk of wood on top of 6 or 8 charcoal briquettes to create the smoke. Do not soak the wood first. This will give you at least 2 to 3 hours of cooking time and great smoke.

Pro Tips:

Water is a heat conductor. This makes a brined item cook faster than a non-brined item.

If you do not have room in your refrigerator you can use a cooler.

If you want to add other flavors, you can add a cinnamon stick, red pepper flakes, if you like it spicy, or add whole mustard seed, ½ cup honey. You can also use juniper berries or fresh rosemary.

You do not want to add salt to your meat before cooking. It will make your meat way too salty. The salty brining is enough.

Smoke the ham

Resting the Ham

Resting your smoked brined ham is the hardest part. The smell of your ham will make you want to cut right into it but do not. Give it a rest for about 30-45 minutes. This rest period will allow the fibers in your ham to relax and it will be tender and juicy when you finally slice into it.

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