There are two agonizing periods of time when curing and smoking any meat — drying, and bringing the meat to final temperature. Not because they are difficult but because they take hours longer than you think they should.
The idea behind drying the meat’s surface before smoking it is simple — smoke doesn’t easily stick to wet meat, so by drying the meat’s surface and creating a pellicle (when the surface of the meat has a film look to it) the smoke will stick and penetrate further into the meat.
Wrapped in Cheesecloth and Drying in the Smoker
When it’s time to take the meat out of the brine, however, I typically forget that a lot of time is required for this step. In Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie
they recommend placing a large piece of meat (like a whole ham) on a rack in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Rytek Kutas’ method in his book Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing
is to dry the ham in the smoker at 120 degrees with vents wide open and no smoke for 12 hours. That’s after you’ve dried out the smoker for an hour prior using the same method. Either way, it seems like a lost day of making meat.
Color is Developing
Due to my anxiousness, I have discovered that drying the larger pieces of meat for just three hours in the smoker at 120 degrees will produce a sufficient pellicle. This may also have to do with the relative humidity of Southern California. What I believe I’m sacrificing in shortening the drying time is the depth of smoke penetration into the meat. I will follow one of the two methods above next time for comparison, but the three hour drying time produced a fine piece of smoked meat and I don’t believe anyone tasting the ham noticed the difference.
So, that’s my thinking on shortening the drying time. Here are the preliminary steps:
- Turn on your smoker to 120 degrees with vents wide open to allow it to cook off any condensation inside.
- Pat the meat dry with paper towels, making sure to get as much visible liquid off the surface as possible
- Before you dry a whole piece of meat, it’s advantageous to wrap it in something that makes hanging it easier or possible. You can purchase stockinettes from Butcher-Packer.com or SausageMaker.com. These are fine for average size hams and other whole meats.
- Do a quick soak in vinegar to make the stockinette easier to remove after smoking and drop the meat inside.
- In the case of the 28 pounder, it wasn’t going to fit into a ready-made stockinette so I wrapped it with two pieces of cheesecloth (dipped in vinegar) for complete coverage and trussed it with butcher’s twine. If your ham fits in one piece of cheesecloth, all the better. I created a handle on one end with twine and hooked my ham hook through it so I could hang it in the smoker to dry.
- Put your thermometer probe in the meat before or right after hanging it in the smoker. I generally run the cord through the vent.
Three hours later I was ready to introduce smoke. Since the smoking process dries the air inside the smoker considerably and can potentially dry out your meat, it’s good to have a pan or bowl of water inside your smoker to keep the relative humidity up. I use a one-quart stainless bowl full of tap water, but whatever fits in your smoker is fine.
All smokers should have at least one dampener (adjustable vent). Now that we are no longer trying to encourage moisture to escape and I want to keep smoke inside, I turned my dampener down to 1/4 open.
Bring on the smoke! I use the Bradley 6-Rack Digital Smoker, so adding smoke is as simple as putting biscuits in the tube and setting the digital controller to four hours. I reset the oven controller to four hours at the same time and up the temperature to 150 degrees. 10 minutes after the oven reaches 150, I check to make sure it didn’t go past 160. Once I’m confident the temp is under 160 I leave it to smoke.
Smokey and Ready for the Oven
Because this is such a large piece of meat, I return four hours later and reset the smoker timer and the oven timer for another four hours, check on the internal temperature and make sure the water resevoir is full. After eight hours of smoke, I’m confident smoke has penetrated sufficiently into the meat.
The final phase begins — we need to bring the meat up to a safe internal temperature by cooking it. The type of meat and how you plan to serve the meat determines what temperature you should end at. In the case of ham, if you plan to heat it up before serving it you could partially cook it now and finish cooking it before serving.
Unwrapped and fresh out of the Oven
A partially cooked ham is cooked to 138 degrees which is sufficient to kill trichanae. It can then be cooled and cooked later to 155-160 degrees depending on your taste and it will have more moisture in the meat because of this process.
If planning on serving the ham right away or in my case giving it away to friends, it’s best to fully cook the ham to 155-160 degrees. Either method should be completed at the lowest temperature possible.
The First Slices
My oven can be set to 170 degrees, so when done smoking I just threw the ham into the pre-heated oven on a cookie sheet (nothing else was large enough) and let it cook for another 12-14 hours. Don’t forget your water pan and remember, this is the second agonizing time — bringing the meat up to its final internal temperature. It takes FOREVER. Bringing a large piece of meat up to 155-160 degrees when it’s in a 170 degree oven is time consuming. Managing to do it in your oven (if your oven can be set low enough) seems to be the easiest way.