At the big 2014 National Country Ham Championship held recently in the heart of the ham belt: Paducah, Kentucky; Broadbent Hams captured the title of Best Unsmoked Ham in USA.
Ham aficionados across the globe have had Broadbent on their radar for decades as the Kuttawa, Kentucky company has routinely seen their hams auctioned off for hundreds of thousands of dollars, including their alpha ham of 2010 that sold for $1.6 million. That is correct. Almost 100k per pound.
Meanwhile in the smoked category of the same competition, Tripp Country Ham of Brownsville, Tennessee was victorious.
Tripp is old-school when it comes to technique: when the ham arrives at the facility, it’s salted down and placed in a curing vat where it relaxes for five days before being salted down once more.
After that, the ham sits at 36 degrees for seven weeks before being cleaned and rotated to the Spring room where it hangs at 45 degrees for two weeks. Finally, the ham goes to the Summer room where it’s held at 80+ degrees for four weeks, a process that is crucial to the flavor and helps the ham reduce it’s weight by a minimum of 18%.
This is the defining characteristic of country ham, and it’s been codified into law as well. If the ham doesn’t drop that weight percentage, it may not be called “country.”
When a Tripp’s ham comes out of the Summer room it’s smoked for a solid week before being deemed ready for market. That’s a grand total of about 15 weeks devoted to getting that ham whipped into shape and ready for consumption.
And that’s a fair amount of time until you compare it to places like Benton’s down in Madisonville, TN where the ham undergoes a similar process but one that takes a minimum of 52 weeks.
It all comes down to the hog. Tripp’s uses commodity ham from pigs that have had nearly all the fat bred out of them. If they were aging their hams any longer than they are it would not benefit the final product; it would be too dry.
Benton’s is using heritage pork, a much fattier pig whose hams can survive, and indeed thrive under lengthy curing.
There is no comparison between the two. A well nurtured heritage breed pig will always trump the flesh of a commercial feed lot creature.
Any good ham competition will also have reserve champions. They say a miss is as good as a mile but don’t sleep on either of these two purveyors as they are also putting out world class meat:
Unsmoked reserve champion: Goodnight Brothers of Boone, North Carolina
Smoked reserve champion: Harper’s of Clinton, Kentucky.
Now get out there and eat a big plate of country ham and report back.