"Kill your hogs when the wind is from the northwest": How to cure a ham
Imagine life before refrigeration. It really wasn't that long ago that folks were putting up fruits and vegetables from their gardens in jars and slaughtering livestock they raised themselves and preserving it so it would last through the winter.
My house was built in 1882. It has an unfinished cellar that sits on bricks which sit on dirt. It's quite cool most of the time. Down there in the cool, dark cellar is where the canned goods and meats were stored. There was a smokehouse out back where meats were cooked and preserved.
One of the most important methods of preserving meats was developed by the early pioneers and called "curing". This method, applied to hogs, produced the bacon and ham which comprisied a large part of their diets.
A ham is the rear leg of a hog. It was, and still is, preserved by salting, sugaring, smoking or drying or a combination of all of these. From medieval times, salt was mixed with saltpeter and other ingredients; such as, sugar, honey or juniper berries to carry out the preserving process.
Two methods developed: wet (or brine) curing and dry curing. In the first, ingredients were mixed with boiling water to form a pickling brine. In the second, the ingredients were rubbed into the meat several times over a period of several hours.
The following is a method for curing ham found in an old 1875 Bluegrass Cookbook
How To Cure A Ham (by Colonel William Rhodes Davis, Lexington, Kentucky)
" Kill your hogs when the wind is from the northwest. The night before you salt the meat, make a strong solution of red peppers and 2 tablespoons of saltpeter for every two gallons of water. Pour this over the salt. Then salt the meat lightly to let the blood run off.
Pack the meat in salt and let it lie packed in salt for three days. Overhaul meat and put one teaspoon of saltpeter on the flesh side and rub well. Then rub with molasses mixed with more salt. Pack closed for 10 days.
Overhaul again, rubbing each piece. Wash in warm water. While wet, roll in hickory ashes. Pack again and hang for three weeks from the time the hog was killed. Smoke with green hickory and tie up in cotton bags, in February."
Old 1800 summer kitchen-smoke house
Modern day smoke house
For those of you might like to try drying or smoking cured meats, using the method described above, you will need a smokehouse. You can build a smokehouse of cinder block or use an old refrigerator, then construct a separate underground (or lower) fire pit. The finished smoke house is quite versatile and will enable you to smoke hams and bacon as well as drying meats.
They require far less wood than outdoor drying racks, and take less of your time and energy to use. While a small refrigerator would seem too small to dry much meat at one time, it can be operated 24 hours a day (No carrying in the racks at night!) and thus can dry meat in about one third of the time required for outdoor drying.