COLUMBIA — On Sunday afternoon at the Boone County Fair, rows of country cured hams lay side-to-side on white tables. From far away, they all looked the same. Up close, their differences became clear.
Some were musky and sweet-smelling, with a springy exterior. Others were wet to the touch, leaking oily ham juice. A few had a smoky smell (which is against the rules), with patches of tough, cooked crust.
One hundred ninety-five hams were judged on the contestants' ability to craft an authentic Boone County sugar cured ham. Commercial hams and smoked hams were not allowed.
Ham committee co-chair and Hallsville 4-H club leader Elaine George provided a list of the top five competitors:
Grand champion: Brooke Schnarre in the youth category.
Reserve champion: Travis Lynn in the open category.
Third place: Jerry Barnes in the open category.
Fourth place: Riley Hamilton in the youth category.
Fifth place: Nikki Crocker in the youth category.
The judges scored the hams based on eight categories. In order of importance, they were: aroma, meatiness, firmness, trim, fitting (absence of residues), skin smoothness, outside color and eye appeal.
Monday morning, judges squeezed them and stabbed ice picks deep inside. After withdrawing the picks, they put them under their noses. Aroma is the most important factor in judging a country cured ham.
Dry curing is an ancient form of meat preservation, and Boone County has a long tradition of country cured ham. Today, when the typical commercial curing method is to stick a needle in the ham and inject the cure, Boone County’s 4-H clubs are keeping the art of dry curing alive by encouraging youth participation in the fair's annual ham contest.
Curing a ham the Boone County way takes about six months. High school sophomore Andi Mitchell bought a raw pork leg from MU Extension in early December.
She brought it home and rubbed it that day with cure — salt, red pepper, black pepper, potassium nitrate and brown sugar. She got the ingredients through her 4-H club, the Hallsville Go-Getters.
Mitchell has participated in the contest three or four times before. "It's fun," she said. "It's not that hard."
Her father, Butch Mitchell, said Hallsville hams have done well at the fair in the past and credits Hallsville’s 4-H leaders.
“I think it’s got a lot to do with the people that are involved in it, the project leaders, that take the time and show the kids how to properly do it,” he said. “To buy the cure, make the cure, and then trim them up.”
Elaine George has been leading the 4-H club in Hallsville for more than 30 years. She was at the fair Sunday afternoon helping participants check in. “I was in 4-H, and then my kids were in 4-H,” she said. “When our leader in Hallsville quit many years ago, I took over his job.”
Ham curing is one of the many skills she teaches her club members.
"(4-H) has a lot of good learning things, not only for the 4-H program, but life skills," she said.
When George was growing up, her family butchered their own hogs and cured their own ham.
“We do the hams the first weekend in December," she said. “The temperature has to be below 40 degrees at night time in order for it to take the cure like it should. It can’t be really hot.”
Though George has much first-hand experience with ham curing, she points out Virgil Gardner, a local ham curing expert, as a trove of knowledge about the craft. As Gardner explains how he does it, the value of experience is obvious.
Gardner, 86, had a father in the ham curing business who taught him how to do it when he was a boy. He has judged ham contests and produced them commercially.
“Dad always used the idea, whenever there’s ice on the pond, start curing hams, cause that does away with the flies and the bugs,” Gardner said. “If the ham is 40 degrees, cure it, wrap it, put it in a sack.” The next step is hanging the ham to allow it to cure, he said.
At night, the ham should get to around 26 to 30 degrees before warming back up to around 40 the next day. This series of cooling and heating helps the ham “take the cure,” he said. He explains how to tell if the cure hasn't properly dried the ham.
“Take an ice pick and what they call probe it,” he said. “Pull it out and smell it. You can tell real quick.”
As important as the cure is in the process, a healthy breeze is essential, Gardner said.
“It’s not really the cure that cures the ham, it’s the air,” he said.
Gardner has a ham house in his yard with windows on the south, west and east sides for ventilation. Even during cold weather, he keeps one set of windows open to keep air moving in and out.
“If you just stand and look at the hams hanging, they’ll turn,” he said, slowly rotating his hand.
In early spring, after curing is done, Gardner said he takes the hams down and unwraps them. If all is well, they will be growing mold on the outside.
“If you don’t have the mold on the ham, you might as well throw it away,” he said.
Gardner said mold begins growing around February or early March, depending on temperature and humidity. The ham should then be unwrapped and scrubbed.
Gardner searches the rows of hams and points out one that didn't get a thorough scrubbing. Tiny white filaments web its rough surface. Its score will get knocked down because of the mold, he said.
“They washed it but they didn’t wash it long enough,” he said. “They should have took a scrub brush and got with it.”
After scrubbing, Gardner said the ham should be hung up again in a ventilated area, where it will age another three months or so. It will then be taken down and scrubbed again.
As it ages in the warm air of spring and summer, the ham gains a rich flavor unmatched in industrially produced ham, he said.
"You can't buy it at Walmart," he said. "You can buy everything else, but you can't buy this."
Want to learn more about making country cured ham? Check out this Texas A&M University web page explaining the different curing processes and the chemistry behind them. MU Extension has step-by-step instructions for curing your own ham.
Supervising editor is Jake Kreinberg.