Published November 1, 1996.
We find that only older hams need to be soaked before cooking and that baking and simmering yield delicious but very different results.
For every Southern cook, it seems, there's a different way to prepare a country ham. Some cooks bake a country ham as they would a standard ham; others simmer it in a huge pot. Some soak their ham overnight, others for as long as three days. Some people add vinegar or brown sugar to the soaking water. We even found a recipe that called for both vinegar and brown sugar and a final treatment in Coca-Cola.
We set out to find the best way to cook a whole country ham for a holiday buffet or meal. Our testing focused on the soaking and cooking method, the goal being a tender ham that could be sliced thin and mounded on small sandwich buns.
The first issue to address was soaking. The theory behind soaking a cured ham is that it causes the salty meat to absorb water, thereby softening the ham and preventing excessive dryness. We found this to be true--depending on how long the ham has been aged. Hams aged for fewer than six months don't need to be soaked; hams aged for six months to a year should be soaked for 36 hours; and hams aged for more than a year should be soaked for three days, with the water being changed every day.
As for cooking, the most universally accepted way to prepare a country ham is to simmer it. Simmering adds a touch of moisture that many people believe the ham needs, and simmering makes it much easier to remove the ham bone for more convenient serving. A simmered ham is also firmer than a baked ham, with a texture akin to cold cuts, and is less likely to fall apart into small pieces when sliced. It also has a milder, less salty flavor than baked ham. Because this is an important consideration for holiday meals or buffets, we believe simmering to be the best all-purpose cooking method for a country ham. That said, we've also included a variation for baked ham, knowing that some people prefer it.list of recipes