The Art of the American Country-Cured Ham

Allan Benton's Country Cured Hams
( JoAnn Alumbaugh )

Most Americans love ham. It’s a regular star for breakfast and lunch, let alone a staple on holiday tables. But surprisingly, many Americans have never tried what chefs consider the crème de la crème of the prized cut: country cured ham. James Beard Award-winning chef, Linton Hopkins is committed to changing that situation.

In an article by George Embiricos on www.foodrepublic.com, Linton practically gushes about ham. The well-known chef owns five full-service restaurants in Atlanta, Georgia, has a stand at the Atlanta Braves’ Turner Field, and is founder of the Fellowship of Country Ham Slicers. He considers ham a metaphor for “the way all quality food should be treated in the U.S. – with utmost care, from its sourcing to its preservation to its preparation to its service,” he said in the article.

He has great respect for Allan Benton, known for Benton’s Country Ham in Madisonville, Tenn. (who was featured in the June 2016 issue of Farm Journal’s PORK), and wonders who will take the place of Benton and other ham artisans.

In the Food Republic article, Linton shared his “Five Commandments of American Ham:

1.  The American Southern ham is on par with the other great hams of the world, whether it’s ibérico from Spain or prosciutto from Italy. “It is, without a doubt, one of our amazing global artisanal products,” Linton said.

2.  “Nancy Newsom is an American hero, but the industry is fragile: Who is after her or Allan Benton? We’re in danger of losing some key figures in the world of artisans — we need to pass on the importance of preservation to the younger generations,” Linton stressed.

3.  Linton believes there are two ways to prepare Southern ham: “Treat it as a raw, artisanal product that you can serve raw because it’s air-dried and safe, or cook it down with sugar water, get the salt out and glaze it traditionally,” he said.

4.  “On the raw side, it’s about slicing it so thin that it only has one side, using a knife and not a machine to cut it and buying Spanish ham-holders to be able to hold it,” Linton said. If you’ve never tried thinly sliced country ham with melon, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven.”

5.  Country ham, by law, is 4% salinity, he said. Ibérico, for comparison’s sake, is 1.5% salinity.

An Acquired Taste
The saltiness of country cured ham may take you off-guard at first – it’s an acquired taste. Allan Benton, owner of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tenn., has been making some of the best country-cured hams in the country for the last 40 years. He sells 18,000 to 20,000 hams and more than 30,000 lb. of hickory smoked bacon every year.

country cured ham
Benton uses only salt, brown sugar and red pepper in his rub, just like his grandparents did years ago.

The differences between Benton’s ham and bacon and others who sell similar products are distinct, and in some cases, easily apparent:

Heritage breeds: Benton is secretive when it comes to talking about where his meat is sourced, because it keeps getting harder to find the heritage breeds he likes to use for their intramuscular fat and marbling. He especially likes pasture-raised Berkshire, Tamworth, Duroc, Red Waddle and Meishan breeds.

Smoke: A heavy door opens and smoke billows out, filling the air with the pungent aroma of hickory. Through the fog, one can see rack upon rack of bacon. “The bellies stay in the smokehouse for three days of intense smoke. If you don’t like smoke, you don’t need to buy my bacon,” Benton says. It is a deeply intense taste experience, as the smoke thoroughly permeates the meat. Benton uses nearly all hickory wood in his two smokehouses. “We’ll use any wood, as long as it’s hickory,” Benton says with an easy smile. The hams are then set aside to dry cure for a solid month. During that time they lose a good bit of weight but the flavors intensify. Dry curing takes longer, adds costs and decreases yield, but it creates a deep, solid, memorable flavor.

Time: These aren’t just aged hams – these are aged hams. The oldest hams are 27 to 28 months old, whereas Benton’s competitors usually cure their hams for no more than 7 months. The bacon takes about 4 ½ to 5 weeks. “We can sell hams as young as 7 or 8 months but most of our hams are 14 months old,” Benton says. “They stay in the cooler for about 55 days then we take them out and hang them.”

The Rub: “My family in Virginia had always used salt, brown sugar and black and red pepper, and that’s what I switched to when I started,” Benton says. He’s not changed it in all the years he’s run the business.

Look for an article about Allen Benton on PorkBusiness.com later this week.

 
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