American Ham


Ham Recipes

Potlikker Noodles with Mustard Greens
Cooked Bone-In Country Ham
Southern Breakfast Skillet


The below is an excerpt from The 400 Volume 31.  Click here to sign up for our newsletter, the 400, for the latest on how creative chefs and innovative operations bring pork to the menu – with amazing results.

The “It” Charcuterie

Italian-made meats have dominated restaurant salumi platters in recent years; however, chefs today are turning to cured meats made in-house or by domestic, artisan producers – the most notable cut being ham. Whether European-style (cured and dry-aged), country-style (dry-cured and smoked) or city-style (wet-cured and smoked), American hams have taken over platters, small plates and entrees as the new “it” charcuterie.


The New Tasting Platter


In a trend many say began with Momofuku’s David Chang, chefs have modernized their charcuterie platters. Thin slices of regional American hams are served simply, with few accoutrements, as a way to showcase their unique differences. Chang serves his ham with a small ramekin of thick red-eye-gravy mayonnaise.

“Chefs are discovering that people enjoy eating ham by itself, and that they don’t have to go through an elaborate pairing process,” says La Quercia’s Herb Eckhouse. Sam Edwards of Edwards of Surry also notes “Chefs are discovering American-made hams are just as satisfying as European imports, but they’re unique and available at a fraction of the cost.”

Like a fine wine or hand-crafted cheese, hams, too, have their own “terroir.” American country ham has its own variations and differences from region to region, making each type special in its own right.  Method also plays an integral role – the traditional American method is salt-cured, and then smoked or baked to finish. Other hams are salt-cured and then hung to air dry and age, more like an Italian prosciutto. Westphalian-style ham, a Northern Germany staple, is naturally cured, then smoked over hardwood.

“We all cure our hams differently and the ‘terroir’ and climate of the location affects the flavor profile,” says Edwards. “The good bacteria in our plant is different than that in Kentucky, and that can affect the taste.”

Virginia country hams, such as the ones produced by Edwards of Surry, are salt-cured, then smoked over hickory wood. Benton’s in Tennessee and many Kentucky ham makers also use hickory wood for smoking.

American ham makers are also delving into traditional European-style curing processes. Edwards’ “Surryano” ham is only salt-cured and aged, much like the Serrano hams of Spain. La Quercia prosciutto from Iowa only lightly salt-cures its pork, and then ushers the meat through a series of temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms to mimic the traditional, age-old Italian method of curing through the change in seasons from December to June.  What the pigs eat can make a difference, too – La Quercia offers ham made from acorn-fed pigs while Edwards has a Virginia peanut-fed version.

Following the ham-as-charcuterie trend, Chef Michael Paley of Garage Bar in Louisville menus a “ham bar,” with thin slices of domestic-made hams from Edwards in Virginia, Benton’s in Tennessee, as well as Broadbent’s, and Meacham County in Kentucky. The hams are offered individually or all together.  The board is served with crusty bread, red eye aioli and carrot preserves.

Elias Cairo, owner/meat maker at Portland’s Olympic Provisions makes a prosciutto-style ham, served simply in paper thin slices with lemon, olive oil and salt on a wooden board. To make the ham, he salts the hindquarters and presses them under 200 pound weights to form and cure for three months. He then covers the rinsed and exposed side with lard, rice flour and black pepper, hanging the meat to dry for an additional 14 months at his USDA-certified facility.

Chef/Owner Scott Youkilis of Hog & Rocks in San Francisco offers an artisanal ham tasting platter with domestic versions from La Quercia – served with seasonal heirloom melon slices – and others made in Virginia with house made ricotta cheese, candied almonds and optional oysters on the half shell. At Public Kitchen & Bar in Los Angeles, Executive Chef Tim Goodell offers rotating varieties of American hams with optional cheese pairings and simple accompaniments.


Sharable Plates with Ham

At 17 percent, processed ham represents the 2nd largest pork category in foodservice after bacon. The category as a whole has gained 57MM pounds or 1.8% since 2011 in total volume by operator segment since 2011, according to Chicago-based research firm Technomic. In fact, cured ham in particular saw a 2.25 percent increase in menu listings this year.

Aside from charcuterie boards and tasting platters, small and sharable plates have served as vehicles for showcasing domestic hams. Chef Harold Dieterle of The Marrow in New York serves La Quercia prosciutto wrapped dates with Gorgonzola on the bar menu. Michael Voltaggio also serves La Quercia ham at MVink in Los Angeles, but alongside beets, yogurt and nutmeg oil. Adam Siegel of Bacchus in Milwaukee serves the Iowa prosciutto atop a petit salad of watermelon, arugula, feta cheese and almonds. Chefs are finding that the variety and flavor of American-made hams complement a variety of different fruits and foods.

In fact, Allan Benton of Benton’s Ham in Tennessee said his sales skyrocketed as a result of top chefs sourcing his dry-cured, hickory smoked hams.  He credits Chef Joseph Lenn of Blackberry Farm, the high-end resort in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, for Benton’s initial exposure. Originally Chef Lenn served the Benton’s Country Ham wrapped around Northeastern American Sturgeon as well as atop colorful salads as a special garnish. Today, Chef Lenn offers his customers Anson Mills Grits with hollandaise, ramps, and crispy Benton’s country ham.

“What I make is sustenance food, but it’s these young talented chefs and the talented ways they use our product that has literally put us on the map,” says Benton.


The King of Hams

Some American meat makers and producers are experimenting with other types of old world hams, most notably, culatello.

At West Loop Salumi in Chicago, owner Greg Laketek makes his own type of culatello. He traveled to Zibello, Italy, just north of Parma, to learn how to make the cured delicacy first-hand because the nature of the aging process means the USDA has prohibited imports of this specific Italian ham.

The prestigious, dry-aged ham is often referred to as the “King’s Cut” after a royal who demanded his own type of salami from the best muscle of the prosciutto. What makes it different from prosciutto, Laketek explains, is that the deboned, cured meat is stuffed in a hog bladder and trussed before hanging, and aging, in cellars for at least nine months. The meat is also sprayed lightly with Lambrusco, a sparkling red wine indigenous to the region.  Leaving a taste very different from Prosciutto – sweeter, mellower and more delicate in flavor, with an astoundingly smooth and creamy texture. The ham is commonly served in paper-thin slices with a glass of the bubbly as well as aged balsamic and Parmesan.

The aging process and development of tasty “mold” on the meat, in Zibello, comes from the fog and humidity produced by the local river during November through January. To recreate the aging process and taste, Laketek looks to heavily climate-controlled rooms. He plans to sell the culatello to Mario Batali’s Eataly, which will open in Chicago later this year, and expects the meat to be served alone or with a few accouterments.

Armandino Batali, father of Mario Batali, famed meat maker and owner of Salumi in Seattle, has also made it his mission to produce the soft and succulent culatello domestically. Using the natural microclimate of the Pacific northwest region – rain, a moderate amount of humidity, occasional fog and soft temperatures – Batali is able to replicate the “King’s Cut.” He says, “Add to the location the controlled environmental curing process at Salumi and we have a new tradition not so far off from the old.” At Babbo in New York, Mario Batali is one of Salumi’s best costumers, and menus thin slices of culatello with pears and Parmesan shavings, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice.


Stepped Up Sandwiches

PQM Italian

Sandwiches continue to serve as the main drivers for cured ham menu applications across the country, accounting for 36 percent of main dishes using the meat, says Technomic.

Chefs today, however, go beyond the basic ham and cheese combo with more interesting, innovative pairings and toppings. Paul Kahan’s Publican Quality Meats pairs its house-made prosciutto cotto “cooked ham” with peppers, provolone, aioli, tomatoes, onions and pickles for the popular Dan’s I-Talian You-Talian sandwich. The ham is cured, brined and cooked for extra depth of flavor.

Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor uses an Italian-style, rosemary ham by the Citterio company, in Pennsylvania, for its Jimmy Wants Rosemary’s Baby sandwich with handmade fresh mozzarella, tomato, olive oil and red wine vinegar on Sicilian sesame semolina bread. Waypoint Grill in Williamsburg, Va., serves a ham and seafood combo in the form of a po’ boy with local ham, fried oysters, lettuce, tomato and bistro sauce. And, at Bacchanalia in Atlanta, house-cured country ham comes with rye bread, preserved lemon and mustard for at-the-table “sandwich” making.

At Marty’s Market in Pittsburg, chef Matt Huggins takes an ethnic approach to his domestically produced honey ham. Creating a banh mi with the ham, black radish slices, jalapeños, cucumbers, pickled carrots, garlic sesame aioli and cilantro on ciabatta bread from a local bakery.


Center of the Plate


Other on-trend uses for ham tend to be influenced by Southern or country-style traditions, according to Technomic. A Virginia cured ham is often served sliced thick and fried or baked alongside potatoes and other veggies as an entrée. Along the Chesapeake crab cakes often come with a paper-thin slice of country ham on top, blending two of the areas best flavors.

Lemaire Restaurant in Richmond takes a similar surf and turf approach, wrapping Edwards’ Surryano ham around broiled sea scallops set atop maple syrup “scented” grits. At Marrow, Dieterle steps things up a notch by positioning La Quercia speck front and center, wrapped around rabbit loin.

City hams, the wet-cured variety often-gracing holiday tables, are becoming more popular as an entrée. Cairo of City Provisions uses a wet cure, or brine and hot smoking process for his house-made “sweetheart ham.” The brine is made of salt, brown sugar, garlic, onion, thyme and other spices that are brought to a boil and cooled overnight. He then injects the 2-pound, leaner knuckle or sirloin tip with the brine and hangs the meat for eight hours, and then he smokes it for an additional eight hours over apple and hickory wood. Cairo serves the sweetheart ham like a steak with a sauerkraut garnish.

Cairo also takes an ethnic approach with his brined and cooked ham. Serving the ham as an ingredient with smoked chorizo, corona beans, and a touch of sherry vinegar for a classic Spanish stew.  He also tosses the ham with poached prawns and a Spanish romesco sauce.

When it comes to house-made or artisan ham, chefs are finding simple is better. Showcasing the unique tastes and textures influenced by cured meat “terroir,” and the craftsmanship of American ham makers, can set operators apart and help the bottom line. Ham as a charcuterie board offering or small plate standout, center of the dish protein or between bread with more innovative pairings, American-made ham is making an impact.