When is a ham not a ham?

Here we are, post-Christmas, in that strange in-betweeny time before New Year. We had a wonderful Christmas – we awoke here in Boston to a snowy morning; not heavy snow, but snowfall nonetheless, and started the day with a walk through the snow, admiring the beauty of our surroundings in unprecedented quiet. We had champagne, and opened presents. We spoke to friends and family across the globe – a bizarre experience given the time difference. And we joined our favourite American family for a re-run of the previously mentioned Thanksgiving feasting. This time, it was beautiful rare roast beef – cooked to perfection, succulent and juicy, with mashed potato, gravy, salad, and a wonderful beany-noodle concoction which I forgot to ask about but which was, trust me, delicious.

As if we needed more food – we then invited the family to our house on Boxing Day, to try and reciprocate some of the kindness and delicious food they’ve offered us since we arrived. And it is here that this story really begins…

First of all, an apology – I had not intended to write about this dish, and so I took no photos. However, the experience of preparing this meal, and the results, were pretty tremendous, and I wanted to share with you, so I hope you will forgive the absence of pictures this time around.

Disclaimer over – I ask you a question: When is a ham not a ham?

A meal that I love, and one which we often have on Boxing Day at home, is a hot ham, glazed with English mustard and soft brown sugar. The ham is boiled first (leaving you with a delicious hammy stock), before being glazed with a paste made from sugar and English mustard powder and baked in the oven. It is a great way to feed a crowd, and you end up with great left-overs… So I thought this would be perfect for my Boxing Day meal this year.

I started to look for an uncooked ham in the stores – in the UK, this is very easy to buy in any supermarket or butcher’s, but here all I could find was pre-cooked ham. I could have bought this, and glazed and baked it, but I was hoping to have the stock – and I wanted to include the full recipe here. So I spoke to the guy on the butcher counter, explained what I was looking for, and he said they had one left in the store, and that it was 19lbs!! Well, I thought once we’ve fed seven of us, there will be leftovers, I can make soup, we can have sandwiches – pretty much perfect.

It was only after we got home that I looked properly at the label and realised it said ‘fresh ham’… that is… pork. Turns out, ‘ham’ is a cut of pig (the hind leg), which is often, but not always, cured. So the answer to the question is:  a ham is not a ham when it’s… a ham.

I hadn’t even thought to check this, because the only ham I’d even come across before was cured. This left me with a dilemma – and a huge leg of pork. In the end, I decided to go ahead, and started looking for a recipe for fresh ham – finally settling on this one from food network. I served this with Delia Smith’s traditional braised red cabbage with apples, cauliflower cheese, and roast potatoes.

I adapted it slightly – partly because I had a bigger joint of meat, partly because I wanted to try and crackle the skin, and partly because I wanted to adapt the flavour of the rub slightly. I was also concerned about the cider glaze being a bit too sweet, so I strained off the juices in the pan to use later for gravy before I glazed the meat, meaning the gravy had a meatier base. The recipe I’m giving you below is based on a very large piece of pork, in case you ever find yourself with a huge joint of meat and wondering what to do with it. However, if you want to use it for a smaller joint, you can follow the basic cooking times of 20 minutes in a hot oven (250C/475F) followed by 22-26 minutes per pound (450g) at 160C/325F. If you are using a meat thermometer, it should read between 160 & 165 at the end of the cooking time.

Roasted fresh ham with herb crust and cider glaze

Adapted from the foodnetwork.com

Serves… many.

Preparation time: around 40mins active preparation time + 8hrs soaking + 8hrs cooking

  • 1 19-pound fresh ham, bone in and skin on

For the brine:

  • 2 gallons (NB: US gallons)/9 litres water
  • 2 cups kosher salt*
  • 1 cup / 240g dark brown sugar
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 cinnamon stick

For the rub, glaze & gravy:

  • 1/2 cup / 120ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup / 8 tbsp dijon mustard
  • 12 fresh sage leaves
  • 6-8 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves only
  • 8-10 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
  • 12 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 onions, peeled and quartered
  • 1 gallon apple cider**
  • 2 tbsp plain/all-purpose flour
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon

At least one day before you plan to roast the meat, prepare the brine. Score the skin of the meat – cut in diagonal strips across the meat. Cut through the skin and fat, but do not cut as far as the flesh. Dissolve the salt and sugar in the water, and stir in the remaining ingredients. Make sure the brine is cold, transfer to a plastic container (if not already) and then submerge the meat in the brine. If necessary, weight the meat with a plate to ensure it remains fully submerged. Refrigerate for at least four, but not more than eight, hours.

Remove the meat from the brine, rinse well and pat dry. Cover with a clean tea towel or cotton cloth and refrigerate.

When you are ready to cook the meat, heat the oven to 250c/475F. Put the meat in a roasting tin, skin side up, and place in the hot oven for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, reduce the heat to 160C/325F, and roast for around four hours. While the meat is roasting, prepare the rub and glaze. Pour the cider into a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, and simmer until it is reduced to a syrup, skimming the top as necessary. This will take at least 1 1/2 hours. For the rub, place the sage, rosemary, garlic, thyme, oil and mustard into a food processor and blend until it is a coarse paste. Season with salt and pepper.

After four hours’ cooking, remove the meat from the oven and carefully take off the skin. Leave some of the fat on the meat as you will add the rub to this. Place the skin in a tray to one side until later. Smear the rub over the fat of the meat, tuck the quartered onions around the meat in the tray, and return to the oven for a further 2 hours. Keep an eye on the rub and if it starts to brown too much, cover lightly with foil [I did not find I needed to do this].

After two hours’ further cooking, remove from the oven and carefully spoon off the juices in the pan to a saucepan or jug. Spoon or brush the reduced cider over the meat, taking care not to dislodge the rub. Return to the oven and roast for another 1-2 hours, basting occasionally. After one hour, start to check the temperature of the meat – once it is between 160 & 165 remove from the oven.

Remove the meat to a rack and cover lightly with foil – allow to rest for at least 30 minutes and up to one hour. When you remove the meat from the oven, turn the oven up to 250C / 475F and return the skin to the oven on a baking tray to crisp up. To make the gravy – pour the remaining juices from the roasting pan into the saucepan, and spoon off the fat. Add the flour to the roasting pan and stir vigorously, scraping any crusty bits from the pan. Return the roasting juices to the pan, stirring, and heat through. If required, add some water to thin slightly. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary – add a squeeze of lemon juice to balance the sweetness of the cider.

Carve the meat, and serve with the onions and gravy.


  • * For those unfamiliar with it – more information on kosher salt is available here. If it is not easily obtainable, I would suggested substituting sea salt.
  • ** ‘Apple cider’ in the US is not the same as alcoholic cider – rather, it is unfiltered, unsweetened apple juice.

3 thoughts on “When is a ham not a ham?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s