The term "ham hock" may sound foreign and maybe even odd, but this cut of pork often plays a significant role in flavoring many popular dishes, such as collard greens or red beans and rice. More commonly known to southern cooks, the ham hock is a natural flavoring agent that is added to dishes the way herbs and spices are added during cooking. Whether new to cooking with ham hocks or trying to learn more about the ingredient, here is everything you need to know about the cut:
The ham hock, also known as the "pork knuckle," is the joint where a pig's foot connects to its leg. The ham hock is made up of mostly skin, ligaments, tendons and very lean muscle, so it is not a very meaty cut. Because it is so tough, ham hock requires a long, slow cooking process to break down the joint and tenderize the meat, which is also what makes it great for adding its distinctive deep flavor to dishes.
You can buy ham hocks raw, cured, smoked or smoked and cured. While cured or smoked ham hocks can be used as is, if you buy your ham hock raw you have to make sure to properly cook it. Ham hocks can be boiled, roasted, simmered, braised or cooked in a slow cooker, either alone or with other ingredients. Depending on the method of cooking, a ham hock can take anywhere from two to eight hours to become tender. Traditionally, ham hock is slow-cooked to provide the best flavor for whatever dish it is being added to.
Cooking with a ham hock isn't difficult. Though a ham hock is usually prepared with other ingredients, it can also be cooked on its own to create a broth that is later used in recipes and the little meat on the bone can be cut off and added to other dishes. Typically, a ham hock is cooked as part of the main meal, such as pea soup or black-eyed peas, in order to add a smoky, salty flavor to the overall recipe. Once the entire dish is cooked, the ham hock can be removed and discarded, or the meat can be added to the finished product. Ham hock is a versatile ingredient and can be found in many soul food dishes:
When a soup, stew or chowder recipe calls for ham hock, the cut is typically boiled in a large stockpot with select seasonings for a few hours until it is tender.The liquid is strained and used as a broth base for the dish, and the hock meat is trimmed and can be added to the dish later or used in an entirely different dish. Split pea, black bean, potato and ham soup commonly call for ham hock.
Use a ham hock to season side soul food dishes such as black, white, red, kidney, pinto or northern beans by adding the hock to the pot when you begin cooking. Let the ham hock simmer with the beans and your preferred seasonings so the flavors meld together. When the dish is done cooking, cut off any meat from the ham hock and add it back into the meal.
Cooking a ham hock with vegetables is a popular way to enhance the veggies' flavors. The ham hock is commonly used with bitter greens such as collard, kale, mustard and turnips. The salty smokiness of the ham hock balances the bite of the green vegetables to create a more rounded dish. Because the hock needs a longer time to cook than vegetables, cook the two separately and when the ham hock is finished add it to the cooking vegetables. If you're using a smoked or cured ham hock, it can be added as is to the vegetables at the start of cooking. Other vegetables ham hock pairs well with are Brussels sprouts, cabbage, spinach, onions and asparagus.