Ham Hocks Add Incredible Flavor to Some of Our Family-Favorite Recipes
Want to know the secret to a savory pot of collard greens or a slow-cooked potato soup? No, it isn't a dash of hot pepper sauce or a sprinkling of crispy bacon, but the addition of a collagen and fat-laden ham hock, that unassuming piece of pig so essential to many dishes in the South. I know, it doesn't sound or even look pretty, and you have to cook it a long, long while for the goodness and flavor of a ham hock to emerge. But emerge it does, and it is well worth your time and efforts. First, let's talk about what a ham hock is (and isn't) and then we can talk about what you can do with a ham hock.
What is a Ham Hock?
A ham hock, sometimes referred to as pork knuckle, is the joint between the tibia/fibula and the metatarsals of the foot of a pig, where the foot was attached to the hog's leg. In other words, it is the joint that attaches the pig's leg to the foot. The hock is not part of the ham nor part of the foot, or trotter, but rather the extreme shank end of the leg bone. While a ham bone and a ham hock are two different parts of the pig, you can often use them interchangeably. Hocks are typically cured with salt and smoked and will impart a bacony flavor to whatever you add them to. Usually packaged and sold in pairs, budget-friendly ham hocks can be found in the butcher section of your grocery store.
How Can I Use a Ham Hock?
Now that you know what it is, let's talk about how you can use a ham hock. Consisting mainly of skin, tendons, and ligaments, hocks are primarily used to flavor dishes, although many people enjoy braising or slow-roasting hocks and eating them as a main course. The meaty parts require a lot of cooking to become palatable and are often cooked slowly with soups and vegetables, where the collagen and fat can dissolve and impart a savory and smoky taste exclusive to the cut of meat. Ham is full of protein and iron, but can also be very high in sodium, so be careful when adding salt to your dish.
The slow-cooker, everyone's favorite convenient kitchen appliance, is perfect for pulling out the best flavor of ham hocks. Try these Slow-Cooker Collard Greens with Ham Hocks or the Creamy Potato-and-Ham Hock Slow-Cooker Soup and you will understand why the ham hock is the Southern cook's best kept secret. You can use ham hocks when cooking dried beans, as well, as in this vintage recipe for Capitol Hill Bean Soup. Just don't forget the skillet of Southern cornbread.
If you can't find ham hocks, you can usually successfully substitute a ham bone, smoked bacon, or smoked sausage. And if you are going pork free, try smoked turkey sausage or bacon.