Kentucky’s 4-H country ham project reinforces Kentucky’s rich heritage of dry-cured hams, similar to age-old practices used to make Italy’s prosciutto, Spain’s jamón ibérico and Germany’s Black Forest. It is also one of the most popular events for young people at the Kentucky State Fair.
This nine-month-long project starts in January (counties that use a food professional start later) with youth receiving “green” hams from Finchville Farms. These green hams were on the hoof 36 hours prior; no processing or curing has been applied. Each participant gets two hams, which they take back to their county for a curing party. During this “party,” youth calculate the cure (a combination of salt, brown sugar, black pepper and red pepper) and rub the ham well. They pay particular attention to the hock, a joint that can spoil if not properly prepared. They wrap the hams in paper and place them in a form of netting known as the “ham sock” and hang in the ham house to cure.
Salt and sugar penetrate the hams at a rate of about 1 inch per week. As salt goes in, moisture is forced out, reducing the weight of the ham from about 24 pounds at the start to 15 pounds at the time of the state fair. The ham dry-cures from January until April or May. At that time, it undergoes a “ham shuck,” in which the paper and ham sock are removed. A new sock, minus the paper, is put on the ham. The ham is hung again and goes through the “summer sweat,” a period that develops the distinctive traditional flavor and aroma.
Then, the contestant picks the better of the two hams and gets it ready for competition. They remove any mold, carefully and thoroughly wipe the rub from crevices, and apply an optional oil to enhance the sheen and color.
Youth prepare country hams for competition at the state fair in smoked and non-smoked categories, with non-smoked receiving a much higher percentage of the participants. Youth are divided by age divisions and answer targeted questions they receive in advance in a three to five minute speech, which counts for 60 percent of the score. A group of meat professionals judge the ham for the remaining 40 percent. After the competition, youth can take their hams home, with some eating the ham for a special holiday dinner.
Finchville Farms, Penn’s Country Hams, Harper’s Hams, Broadbent Hams B&B Food Products, Meachum Hams, Scott Country Hams, and Clifty Farm Country Meats help support this unique program.
For more information, contact the Logan County Cooperative Extension Service.
Educational programs of the Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of race, color, sex, religion, disability or national origin.
Source: Gregg Rentfrow, UK extension meat specialist
Logan County 4HYD Agent
Gary Michael Templeman is the Logan County Extension Agent for 4-H Youth Development.