The first step is to understand the brining process. Country Hams are cured in a brine, that is, a mixture of salt and water and some sugar to balance out the salt. The amount of salt you use depends on how much your ham weighs. Salt ads flavor and prevents spoilage when it is time to cook your ham, since cooking a whole ham is a slow process in a lower heat environment. You also want to buy a meat injector and inject the brine directly into the meat in order to insure the entire ham is saturated with brine.
Paul Bertolli, in his book Cooking By Hand recommends using 3 to 5 percent salt solution and 2 percent sugar solution to your water. He factors in the water content in the meat just to be safe, which is around 65 percent. So, if you have a 20 lb ham and you want to brine it, put it in a six gallon container and put enough water in it to cover it up to three inches. This will give you about 3 gallons of water. Now, factor in the water content of the ham, which is another 1.6 gallons of water (20lbs x .65 gives you 13 lbs of water weight. Water weighs 8.33 lbs per gallon so you take 13, divide that by 8.33 and round up), and you have 4.6 gallons of water to salt. One gallon of water weighs 8.33 lbs remember, so take that times 4.6 and you have about 38 lbs of water to salt. Multiply that by .03 for salt and .o2 for sugar and you get 1.14 lbs of salt, and .76 pounds of sugar. To be accurate I always convert these numbers to the metric system. So, for the salt you take 1.14 x 16oz x 28g and you get 510 grams of salt minimum to safely brine your ham and 340 grams of sugar to balance the salt.
Whew! I know. But it’s worth it! For me, that formula was just a starting point, since I have added more salt to the over all mixture. Next, because we smoke our hams, I had to figure out the formula for using sodium nitrite, or pink salt curing mix, which is a blend of sodium nitrite and regular salt. Sodium nitrite is essential for preventing the deadly but rare toxin Botulism, which thrives in environments devoid of oxygen, like your friendly smoker. Sodium nitrate concentrates in the brine and meat need to be 200 ppm, and no more, so the formula is as follows: 200ppm x (total brine weight + raw weight of the meat) / 1,000,000. The total brine weight is the weight of the brine, including water (38lbs), salt and sugar. 38+ 1.14+. 76 = 39.9 lbs Total brine weight. Now we do the math: 200 x 39.9 = 7980/1,000,000= .00798 lbs pure sodium nitrite. Pink salt is a mixture, remember, of sodium nitrite and regular salt, often at 6.25 percent pure sodium nitrite. The nitrite content must be listed on the package. So if your pink salt is 6.25 percent sodium nitrite, you must divide the amount of pure nitrite needed for your recipe by the percentage of nitrite in your curing mix. Here I will quote Bertolli, “To do this, you have to express the percentage of pure nitrite in the cure mix as a decimal, (meaning move it 2 places to the left) and divide the amount of pure nitrite needed by the percentage of nitrite in the cure mix.” For our formula we take .00798/.0625 and we get .128 lbs curing mix. .128 x 16oz x 28g gives us 57g curing mix. Done.
Now the fun part! This is where you experiment with herbs and veggies in your brine to get your desired flavors. I then brine the ham for 10 days and smoke it at 200 degrees to an internal temperature of 150. If you don’t have a smoker you can simply roast the ham until done, in which case you can eliminate the pink salt/sodium nitrite mess if you so desire. Either way you go, enjoy the process!