Country ham, the ham that can’t be beat! Once you’ve stocked up on it, here’s how long it’ll last (and how to store it).
Few hams can rival the aroma and flavor of country ham, a centerpiece on the dinner table in the great state of Virginia and a type of ham that’s justly favored by those who know their way around the Southern states.
Made from pork butt cured with salt for months on end, then smoked with hickory and red oak, country ham is a salty, smoky, and savory ham that every meat lover should try at least once in their life. Once they do, it takes up a permanent place in their refrigerator.
But how long will it keep?
Country ham is a perishable food product. As such, it will keep at room temperature for 1-2 hours and in the refrigerator for 5-7 days. Frozen country ham stays safe to eat forever, but retains its top quality for only 3-4 months.
If the shelf life of country ham is the question, then read on; we have all the answers you crave to sate your hunger for knowledge.
Selecting and Preparing Country Ham
At the deli counter or grocery store, select the country ham with the farthest expiration date. Opt for the pieces that have had the least exposure to light and air, as the elements can significantly shorten meat’s shelf life, even in the case of cured ham.
The good stores let you choose between cooked and uncooked country ham. Cooked country ham, as the name implies, has been fully cooked and is ready for you to slice thinly and eat with great pleasure. Uncooked ham is raw; it ought to be cooked before eating.
There are three ways to prepare uncooked country ham: in a 275°F smoker, in a 300°F oven, or in simmering water. Whichever you choose, the technique is to always cook the meat to an internal temperature of 165-170°F.
This internal temperature will not only ensure that the ham is fully cooked, but that it comes out tender and juicy as the tough connective tissue in it called “collagen” dissolves into succulent gelatin thanks to the prolonged cook.
How Long Can Country Ham Sit Out?
At home, unpack and refrigerate the ham promptly. During prep and meals, never leave leftover ham out on the counter or table for too long. Pathogenic bacteria, the kind that can cause food-borne illnesses, can quickly grow to dangerous quantities on the ham’s surface and render it unsafe to eat.
Contrary to what most people think, pathogenic bacteria and spoilage bacteria are not necessarily the same thing. Spoilage bacteria are what gives the country ham a gray color, slimy flesh, sour smell, and repulsive taste. In contrast, pathogenic bacteria don’t.
This means that a piece of ham can smell and taste perfectly fine, and still give you stomach cramps or, worse, food poisoning. So, for food safety reasons, do not leave leftover country ham to sit out for more than 1-2 hours at room temperature.
The Proper Way to Refrigerate Country Ham
Country ham should be stored in the fridge, where it will keep for 5-7 days. Store the ham on the lowest compartment of your fridge, where it is coolest.
To keep whole ham or half ham from drying out, keep it in a cotton ham bag and dampen the ham bag every 2-3 days. Slices of ham should be kept in food storage containers. Place two paper towels, one on the bottom of the container and one under the lid, to keep the ham fresh for longer.
Avoid plastic wrap and aluminum foil when refrigerating county ham lest it be unable to breathe and spoil quickly. You want a cotton ham bag or, if you don’t want to invest in one, an airtight container with a couple of paper towels, instead.
Freezing Country Ham
Country ham, whether cooked or uncooked, freezes, thaws, and reheats well. Freezing puts bacterial growth on halt, says the USDA, so frozen country ham stays safe to eat forever.
However, this doesn’t mean that you should keep it in the freezer for a long time. Within 3-4 months, the quality of the meat begins to decline, and its aroma and taste are no longer as good as they used to be.
Unopened country style hams can be frozen in their original store packaging. (This applies to whole hams and sliced hams.) Opened hams should be cut up into small cubes, so that they’re easy to portion and thaw, and separated into meal-sized freezer bags for the cook’s convenience.
Be sure to label the freezer bags and write down the date of freezing. By doing so, you will always know by when to use up the country ham in your freezer. A little loss of flavor is okay, but trust me what I tell you that prolonged freezing makes the ham unappetizing.
Thawing Frozen Country Ham
The safest way to thaw frozen ham is to transfer it from your freezer to your fridge the night before you plan to cook and eat it. The ham, especially if you cut it up into small cubes before freezing, will be defrosted and ready for reheating.
An alternative—and faster—method is to thaw the country ham in ice water. Keep the ham in its original packaging or in a freezer bag as long as no water can get in. Then close the tap of your sink, fill it with cold water and ice cubes, and submerge the ham in it. Stir it every 20-30 minutes and, within 1-2 hours, it will be thawed.
Of course, you could always thaw the country ham using the “Defrost” setting on your microwave. This method is quick, no doubt about it, but it also dries out the meat and makes it rubbery.
Reheating Country Ham
The best way to reheat country ham is at low temperatures, preferably in a skillet or in the oven.
To reheat country ham in your skillet, bring it to room temperature by taking it out of the fridge and resting for 15 minutes, then cut it up into small cubes. Add a dollop or two of cooking to the skillet, heat it over medium, then add the ham and reheat, flipping the cubes gently, until they’re nice and hot.
To reheat country ham in the oven, preheat your oven to 350°F for 15 minutes. Use the time to remove the ham from the fridge, bring it to room temperature, cut it up into small cubes, and spread the cubes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Slide the sheet in the oven and reheat till the ham’s hot.