Some of us consider a big, sizzling ham as essential to the Easter table as turkey is to the Thanksgiving feast. When it comes to cooking a large ham, or any celebratory entrée, we want the best possible outcome, which is why some cooks insist on brining a fresh ham to ensure it turns out juicy and flavorful. Some cooks up the Southern quotient by using classic sweet tea in place of water in a wet brine. Why sweet tea? Let’s start by answering the question “Why brine?”
A wet brine is a salty (and sometimes sugary) liquid solution intended to balance the amount of moisture in a piece of protein. Brining was originally used to preserve meat in the days before reliable refrigeration, but these days the main reason to brine is to improve flavor and texture in meat before it is cooked, especially in leaner cuts that can turn tough.
The wet brining process is similar to marinating a large cut of protein: the meat is submerged in chilled brine for as little as 30 minutes to up to 2 days, depending on the size and type of meat. However, unlike a marinade, the purpose of brine is to add balance, not flavor. That means that sweet tea brine will not necessarily add the flavor of tea so much as add sugar, liquid, acids, and tannins that can help tenderize the ham and enhance its inherent good flavor.
However, not all Easter hams need to be brined. Many full-cooked or spiral-cut hams are already treated or injected with a salt and sugar solution to make it juicier and “extra-tender”, so read the label or ask your butcher if you are unsure about the status of the ham you are about to purchase. There’s no need to brine meat that’s already been brined.
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Similarly, there is little reason to brine a whole country ham. A country ham has seen plenty of salt and sugar during the curing process, so a sweet tea brine might do it some good, but not in the true sense of brining. Some cooks soak whole country hams in cold water to leech out excess salt and restore a little moisture to meat turned leathery by smoking and aging. One could simply replace the water with chilled sweet tea. Then again, these days few of us cook and serve a full leg of country ham, preferring to instead purchase paper-thin slices to enjoy as one might use prosciutto, or slightly thicker slices to warm in a cast-iron skillet and then tuck into hot biscuits or yeast rolls.
An uncooked or fresh ham is a perfect contender for brining. All you need to do is take your favorite wet brine recipe for pork and replace the cold water with strong, freshly brewed, sweet tea. The salty, sugary liquid will plump the meat and balance the flavors, while the tea’s acids and tannins will tenderize.
When brining a fresh ham, or any uncooked meat, make sure of these things:
- Stir the brine until the salt, sugar, and any seasonings dissolve.
- Chill the brine before adding the ham.
- Submerge the ham in the brine.
- Keep the ham and brine chilled at all times, in the fridge or on ice in a cooler.
- When it’s time to cook the ham, discard the brine and blot the meat dry before proceeding with your recipe.