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Mar 22, 2012 10:10 AM

Fresh Ham- Should I brine?

I have a very large uncured fresh ham (approx 20 lbs) that I want to cook for Easter. I cooked the other one for Christmas and did not brine it and it was tough and awful.

I'm thinking that I need to brine it this time, and would like to to do it without Nitrates/Nitrites/Insta Cure. Does anyone have any experience with brining such a large one without using Nitrates? How long should I be brining for given the size, and do I need to worry about Botulism?

Thanks for your help and suggestions!!

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  1. How do you intend to cook the fresh ham?
    Also, skin on or off?

    A brine is simply a salt water solution with sugar and other flavors. You don't need to use nitrates unless you want the pork to retain the red color, like ham.

    No need to worry about botulism and typical brine is about 24 hours, depends upon the recipe/brine strength.

    I remember cooks illustrated had a fresh ham recipe which turned out pretty good, but that was years ago since I've made it.

    Edit... Doing a web search, FIne Cooking has a free recipe ( I have NOT tried this recipe, but I've had good luck with some of their other recipes.

    1. I have the fresh ham recipe at home in a cookbook, but I found this online. Fresh ham is TDF


      1. The ham is currently skin on. I would like to cook it in the oven after it has been brined. My concern with brining is the size, around 20 lbs. The little bit of research I did suggested for a ham this size to be truly impacted by brining, 1 day per 2 lbs as far as a time guide. If I go with instructions for a longer brine, does Botulism become more of an issue? All the recipes and guidelines I'm finding are for hams that are less than 10 lbs, so I'm looking for something with instructions for a larger ham. Thanks for your help!

        3 Replies
        1. re: Carbear99

          I would not get too worked up about botulism, particularly in whole cuts of meat. Not to get into another debate (there are plenty of CH threads on the subject), but botulism is more of a concern in sausages that are dry aged for a month or longer. I've never cured a whole ham, but have done shoulders weighing about 8 pounds a few times, and 10 days sounds about the minimum for a 20 lb ham if you score the skin before brining (I brine shoulder for 5 days). Leaving the skin intact will increase the brine time, but I have no idea how much. You can over-brine, but little longer is better than shorter. I do use nitrate most of the time because I like the tangy flavor it adds rather than the pink color. Once I cut the brine time a day short and when I sliced the meat I could clearly see by the color change that the brine had not penetrated all the way through.

          BTW, the brine I use is 1 1/2 cups salt and 1 cup sugar in 1 gallon of water (plus whatever spices and herbs you like). You can brine faster using a stronger solution, but I would not do that with a whole ham or other large cut. The salt level is likely to be very uneven (high on the outside and low in the middle).

          1. re: Zeldog

            Thanks for the response, how deep do you score the skin, just through the skin?

            1. re: Carbear99

              Score through the skin but not into the meat, ideally. A box cutter adjusted to 1/2" is actually very good for this. Don't fret overmuch, however. And don't worry about botulism in a heavy salt solution that's kept chilled.

        2. Question: What do you want your finished product to look like? If you have a fresh ham, and you brine it but don't cure it, you'll end up with something that will be closer to pork loin than to ham. I've had some uncured hams before, and they tasted fairly hammy, but it was largely from the smoking.

          To get the consistency, color, and flavoring of ham, then you need to cure it. But if that's not what you're after, then you'd be fine with a simple salt/sugar brine.

          14 Replies
          1. re: foreverhungry

            Thanks for the response-
            I guess I'm confused regarding the difference between brining and curing... I thought they were the same thing, can you explain the difference? I'm not too sure that I'll be able to smoke it since I don't think I have a smoker available to me.. I'd rather the end product to be more like ham than pork loin....

            1. re: Carbear99

              Brining is essentially a fairly short (day or less) saltwater soak meant to enhance moistness. Curing is a fairly long (up to a week or more) soak in salt and usually potassium nitrate (pink salt) that chemically changes the meat and preserves it. Cured meat will be pink/reddish - hot dogs, corned beef, ham, salami.

              A fresh "ham" is not what people typically think of as a ham. It is a fresh hunk of pork leg, and will cook up like a pork chop. If you brine it, it won't dry out as quickly, but it won't be "ham." Also, are you planning to brine at room temperature? I always brine in the refrigerator (or in a cooler filled with ice) - then there's no risk of bacteria.

              1. re: sbp

                Thanks for explaining the difference. There is no need for me to preserve the meat. I definitely don't want to use nitrates, not a fan of them! So I guess what I would be doing is brining to help the meat from drying out. When I cooked the Christmas Fresh Ham is was SO tough and dry, so I'm hoping brining will help with the dryness, any thoughts as far as the roast not being so tough? I will definitely be brining in the refrigerator!

                1. re: Carbear99

                  For roasting a fresh ham, go low temperature, maybe 250, and you want to hit a final internal temperature of about 150-153. Take it out of the oven and loosely foil, and carryover on a big piece of meat like that will take you to 160ish. You don't want to go higher than a final temperature of 160, otherwise it will be tough. Start applying a glaze a few hours before it's done cooking. The more sugar int he glaze, the more time you should wait before starting to apply, but you should be safe if you glaze the final 2 hours, and you're roasting at about 250.

                  For comparison, I'm going to do a combo of a brine/cure on a 8-10 pound fresh ham this weekend. Salt, sugar, and some pink salt, half a day per pound. Then I'll smoke it on Friday, at about 200 degrees, then 2 hours in I'll apply a brown sugar/mustard/garlic glaze, and finish smoking until it hits 150. I'll cool it to room temp, wrap and fridge it until Saturday, where I'll reheat in the oven at 150, covered (we're doing Easter dinner on Saturday).

                  Final note on nitrates - I'm not trying to change your mind about them, and I know lots of people want to avoid them. On the other hand, low quantities of nitrates are present in many foods, including leafy green vegetables (for most folks, most of the nitrates they take in daily comes from leafy green vegetables). Just saying that some folks knee-jerk away from nitrates, but it's a complicated issue.

                  Best of luck with your ham!

                  1. re: foreverhungry

                    Quick question, Based on the 20 lb, ham, with a potential cook time of 10 hrs, at 225-250, do you think that it is fine to cook the ham all day saturday, and then reheat, as you describe on Sunday. We will be cooking it in the oven (rather than smoking). It seems like a better plan than trying to figure out how to get the ham done in a reasonable time on Sunday.

                    1. re: Carbear99

                      Yes. I'm brining/curing a smaller ham as we speak, will smoke it on Friday, and reheat for Saturday Easter dinner. Ham reheats very well, and it's better to reheat it (loosely covered) than to try to hit the right time - regardless of whether you're smoking it or oven cooking it.. Happy Easter!

                      1. re: Carbear99

                        It's easier , and better, to roast your ham and hold it, rather than roast it, cool it and refrigerate, then reheat back to serving temperature, which risks drying out the meat. Effectively, you are doing the same thing twice by cooking a day ahead. You can hold your roast for 2-3 hours very easily....during this time, you can finish your sides or the rest of your menu. You can WARM back up in 30 minutes, finished with a high heat blast.

                        1. re: fourunder

                          Interesting take, fourunder. I've usually found the opposite, especially with ham. Especially given that hams are usually sold cooked and meant to be reheated, and when done carefully, they turn out very well.

                          By holding, do you mean holding in a warmed oven, or loosely covered at room temperature? Given that many holiday meals involve oven dishes, unless one is lucky to have 2 ovens, it's difficult to take up oven space holding a ham. If you mean at room temperature, is that much different than cooking the day before (perhaps when more time allows), cooling and refrigerating, then taking out of the fridge in the morning and letting it come to room temperature and then warming? It seems the end result is similar, yet breaking it up over 2 days gives more flexibility. That's my experience, anyway, and limited to ham and shoulder roasts, but not most other types of meat.

                          1. re: foreverhungry

                            For this particular thread, my take is the OP isn't really shooting for the cured reddish ham, but rather a fresh pork product enhanced with brine. I would treat this much like I do a standing rib roast. In the past few years, I been a proponent of resting the beef for at least an hour....but truth be told, in commercial kitchen, it is even held longer for 2-3 hours and I believe that's why many like Prime Rib out, as the longer rest helps redistribute the meat juices, but have never been able to obtain the revelation at home. In this past holiday season, i even remarked I was disappointed with myself for not realizing the same, given the fact I have been associated with catering and have seen it done all the time at the country clubs and restaurants I have history with. From now on, I will always rest the meat for longer periods of time...effectively holding it either in the oven turned down to 140*...or simply covered with foil or in a makeshift cooler.

                            Depending on the temperature the OP selects to slow roast at....I would expect the ham to take 11-14, possibly up to 16 hours to finish. I would plan on it finishing 2-3 hours ahead of dinner time and lower the temperature to 140* when it reaches the target temperature of 155-160*. I would hold it in the oven until I needed to remove it for cooking the sides. Covered with foil, the roast would not lose much heat for an hour, but to be safe, i would cover with a blanket or beach towel as well to insulate. When the sides are finished, I would place back into the oven to reheat/warm and finish with a high heat blast.

                            My thoughts are that in general, roasts are different than briaised meats and the two day process is not necessary, although I concede it may offer flexibility to the specific needs of a household in time management. Refrigerating a 18-20 roast is not necessary, nor easy. If you do refrigerate, once removed, it's probably best to allow it to warm closer to room temperature for an hour or two, then another couple of hours to reheat/warm. For my own preferences, I would not like to take the extra steps involved. My experience in the commercial kitchens for large roasts, is to put them into the oven before we leave for the night(before) and come back the next day and it's ready.... it's held until it's ready to be served. No need to handle it twice.

                            If this were more like a Cook's or Honey Baked Ham type roast, then I most certainly could see cooking it the day before and reheating the next...especially if you wanted to slice the ham onto a platter, rather than showing the roast on the table ....I'm more of a serve out of the kitchen guy myself and having it ready a day ahead can be very practical....especially if served simply warmed or at room temperature.

                            1. re: fourunder

                              Yes, you're right. I forgot that the OP was handling it more as a fresh pork product. I definitely see your point about resting large meat cuts, and that given the rest time, that works well for pulling a large roast out and simply letting it hang out and then rewarming. Great point about the restaurant vs home Prime Rib. How does that work out with something leaner, like a pork loin? Do you think a 5 pound pork loin could benefit from a 1 -2 hour rest followed by a gentle rewarm, as compared to the typical 15 minute rest?

                              1. re: foreverhungry

                                I definitely believe any pork loin roast, either boneless or rack or rib roast...benefits from the longer rest and I always rest an hour or more. The larger the roast, there's less need to reheat due to heat loss, as the larger roast retains more heat from it's mass, so the high heat blast for 10-12 minutes is suffice. I find with the simple cook to temperature and simple rest of 15-20 minutes method is tougher, i.e., the meat is tight and has more chew. With the longer rest, the meat seems to slice even easier. I have also found that a well marbled pork loin is far superior in taste and texture to the more inexpensive ones on sale at the local markets. My regular market carries both Swifts and Sterling Silver Brands. When the latter goes on sale, I always purchase a couple of whole's worth the extra dollars.


                            2. re: foreverhungry

                              But the OP isn't talking about a store bought, cooked ham. It's a fresh chunk of pork. Home brining, even with some nitrates added, is not going to turn it into the kind of ham that you are talking about.

                              1. re: paulj

                                It will with the addition of smoking. I'm making a "ham" as we speak - brine a fresh ham in salt, brown sugar and pink salt for 1/2 day per pound. Then smoking for a few hours, and glaze. I did this last year, and it had the same "hammy" flavor and color as your standard ham, yet deeper flavor and fresher.

                        2. re: foreverhungry

                          Sorry to bump an old thread, but how long would you say a 10 pound fresh ham would take to cook? How many minutes per pound on average at 250?

                2. What was the target temperature on the Christmas roast? I'm wondering if you over cooked it.

                  I've occasionally bought slices of fresh ham, but haven't done a whole one. My parents used to do it. From what I've read fresh ham is a relatively lean meat, somewhere between the loin and shoulder in terms of leanness and tenderness. It might be worth larding the ham - threading strips of fat or bacon through holes. It might be more effective than brining, which as you note requires a long time with this large a piece of meat.

                  You might look up recipes for 'pernil'. The name comes from 'pierna', leg, so some would argue that it must be made from a fresh ham. However in the USA shoulder is frequently used, in part, because most of the hams get cured.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: paulj

                    Unfortunatly I can't remember the target temp, I'm guessing somewhere is the mid 160's, but I'm not sure... Thanks for the ideas as far as larding and Pernil, I'll have to do some research on them!

                    1. re: Carbear99

                      One thing for you to consider is that by brining any type of pork, it changes the texture of the meat as well, something I personally do not care for. Instead of tasting like pork, the taste and texture becomes more like cold cut ham. While it may not look like a cured ham, the brined ham does tastes closer to one.

                      As for the dryness issue. One mistake many make with a fresh ham is they cook it too long and think it should be treated like a pork shoulder.....but there is not much connective tissue in the ham, so it's not necessary to bring it to 190+ degrees. I roast fresh ham to 160*.


                      1. re: fourunder

                        Thanks for the heads up about the texture change... something to consider!

                        When I cooked the first very large (approx 20 lbs) ham at Christmas, I think the target temp was around 160 and it was SO dry and extremely tough.

                        This is the recipe I used:

                        I feel at a loss as to what to do this time... I guess if the texture changes a little, but if the meat's not tough and dry, that would be okay with me, thoughts?

                        1. re: Carbear99

                          The save temperature for lean pork now is 145deg.


                          One problem with a large roast is that by the time the middle is up to the target temperature, the outer layers are well beyond that. Did you observe a difference in dryness between the meat near the surface, and that close to the bone? With a lower center target the outside shouldn't be quite so hot and dry.

                          according to this table, a 20 lb fresh ham should cook to 145 in 5hrs at 350. It specifies a 10 minute resting time; I think it could be as high as 30 with a roast this size.

                          uses 225 and 10hrs or more. Their target is lower 140. Since temperature in the interior continues to rise during resting, that should produce 145 in the end.

                          1. re: Carbear99

                            In my opinion, the roasting temperature was too high....375* for two hours? That's not something I would consider unless it was chicken.

                            If you want a tender and moist roast, there's no need to brine unless you prefer it's final result. I do not really care for it myself, whether it be pork chops or turkey. You will read a lot of comments about Costco Rotisserie Chicken having funny texture and being too salty....that due to the fact it is brined, and or, solution has been added. I suggest you take the extra time needed to slow roast your Fresh Ham at a low temperature of 225*. The premise behind low and slow roasting is it breaks down the meat to mimic the dry aging process to make the meat naturally tender. High Heat Roasting tightens the meat and makes it tough and chewy....and drier, at least in my opinion. Most commercial kitchens or food providers that specialize in larger inexpensive beef cuts for roast beef or large fresh hams roast at 200* or under to ensure moist and tender meat and highest yields.

                            Unless you have ever tried a brined pork roast,you will never know which style you prefer., but my guess is if you do not like cold cut or cured hams, you will not like a brined one either.

                            For the record, I have never found a Fresh Ham to ever be tough or dry @ 160* if slow roasted. One of my favorite sandwiches is the Cubano. In my area of Northern New Jersey, there is a large Cuban community and they have these small luncheonettes known as cafeterias that specialize in the sandwich. In these businesses, it is not uncommon for a large fresh ham to cooked overnight and the roast sits on the counter all day (room temperature). The meat is sliced and prepared into a Panini Press. The meat is never dry , but moist and tender. Most of these places slow roast the meat at 250* or under.