Growing up in a Belarusian family, we always had Russian-style “fresh ham”, or Buzhenina, for Easter. It didn’t look or taste like most Easter hams, because it was a “fresh ham”. In which case, was it really a ham???
Ham is by definition leg of pork (above the hock) cured by salting, drying and sometimes smoking. Since “fresh ham” is not cured, then “fresh ham” is not really ham. Right? Wouldn’t you think it would be called simply fresh leg of pork? It is all so very confusing.
Adding to the confusion, many, including my butcher, use the term “green ham” to describe “fresh ham”. To me, that sounds like an accompaniment to Dr. Seuss’s green eggs.
No matter what the name, “fresh ham” is an uncured leg of pork. It is usually purchased bone-in and has a thick layer of exterior fat. The fat should be cut in strips or diamond shape, something to request of your butcher, and left in place during cooking. Because fresh ham is the leg, it is not the most tender cut of pork and is best brined – to add tenderness and flavor.
- COOKING FUNDAMENTALS: BRINING. Brining is a short-term substitute for curing. Meats are marinated in a water-based mix of salt/sugar/seasoning for a few hours (thin cuts) to 12 hours (large roasts). It is just enough to introduce salt/sugar/seasoning into the meat but not enough to fully cure it. Brining tenderizes and adds flavor and moisture. The salt (which is hygroscopic) is absorbed into the meat, bringing water along with it and giving your cooked meat added moisture. The salt also changes (denatures) some of the proteins, tenderizing the meat. Sugar (also hygroscopic) balances the salty flavor. The end result is a flavorful and more tender piece of meat.
The Buzhenina recipe below is loosely adapted from my favorite Russian cookbook, “Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook”, by Anya von Bremzen, but the recipe includes modifications from my family history and cooking techniques. (Despite the title, “Please to the Table” is really a Soviet Union cookbook. Written prior to the Soviet break-up, it covers cuisines from the Baltic countries to eastern Russia.) My Buzhenina recipe uses garlic since my father wouldn’t dream of making a fresh pork without garlic (and I agree). I also brine my pork for tenderness, cover the pork loosely for the first part of cooking (to minimize drying), and then roast uncovered to finish (for color and flavor).
My family always served fresh pork with mashed potatoes. We would add sides of sweet and sour red cabbage with home-made applesauce or sauerkraut with a sour cream/horseradish sauce. Skip the green eggs.
Brine (for Pork and Poultry)
Recipe By: A Global Garnish, LLC
2 quarts water
2 ounces salt, kosher
2 ounces sugar
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon thyme, optional
3 cloves, whole
2 teaspoons peppercorns, whole
1. Place all ingredients in a small saucepan. Add 2 cups water (or 1/4 of your final liquid volume). Bring to a simmer. Stir until sugar/salt dissolves. Remove from heat.
2. Add remaining 6 cups water (or 3/4 of your final liquid volume). To chill the brine quickly, you can include ice cubes as part of this final volume of water.
3. Once brine is cool, place in a stainless steel, ceramic or plastic container. Immerse your meat. Store in refrigerator until brining is complete.
NOTE: Depending on the size of your meat and how snug your brining container fits, you may need to double your quantity of brine. I find that an 8 pound half leg in a snug container works well with the brine quantity above (see photo).
For small cuts of meat, brine only 2-3 hours. For larger cuts, brine for longer periods. For example:
Pork chops or fillets: 3 hours
Whole pork loin or small chicken: 8 hours
Fresh pork (leg of pork): 10-12 hours
Turkey: 14-16 hours
4. Remove meat from brine when marinating is complete. Rinse if desired (to remove peppercorns and seasoning). Follow recipe instructions.
NOTE: If you brine meat for a recipe that does not specify brining, reduce the salt in your recipe as brining will add residual salt to the meat.
Russian-Style Roasted Fresh Pork (Leg of Pork) – Buzhenina
Recipe By: A Global Garnish, LLC – adapted from Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook
8 pounds fresh pork, leg (half leg), brined
2 tablespoon mustard, whole grain or Dijon
1/4 cup sugar, brown
1 tablespoon oil, olive
3-4 garlic, cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon black pepper and 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups apple juice
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Placed brined leg of pork on work surface. If exterior fat has not been cut, slice (about 1/3 inch deep) in a diamond pattern through the fat and just through to the meat surface.
Whisk together mustard, brown sugar, oil, garlic, thyme, pepper and salt. Coat all sides of pork with mixture.
NOTE: If using unbrined leg of pork, add about 2 t salt to the mustard/brown sugar mixture
2. Place coated pork on a rack in a roasting pan – fat side up. The fat will naturally baste the pork. Let stand at room temperature for about 20 minutes.
Pour water/juice into the base of the roasting pan.
3. Roast pork for about 2 hours. Turn pork so bottom meat surface is facing to the side. This will give all surfaces some color.
Roast meat for approximately 1 hour longer.
While roasting, check water/juice in pan every hour. Add water to pan as needed – for moisture and to prevent the sugar from burning in the bottom of the pan. I try to keep at least 1/2-1 inch of liquid in the base of the pan but below the rack.
Total roasting time will be approximately 20 minutes/pound. Meat is done when a meat thermometer reads 145 deg F. at the center of the roast (near the bone).
NOTE: In the past, fresh pork was cooked to 160 F. This is not required for food safety but it does do a good job of drying out the meat. The U.S. FDA recently recognized that the higher temperature was unnecessary and lowered the recommended temperature to 145 F from 160 F.
4. Remove roast from oven and let rest about 15 minutes before slicing (meat will cook further outside the oven).
5. If you do want to make a gravy, skim as much of the fat as possible and add a good home-made stock (chicken or pork) for more flavor. You may serve as is. Alternatively, if you prefer a creamy gravy, thicken as described in turkey gravy, using the chicken or pork stock instead of turkey stock.
5. DO AHEAD DIRECTIONS: This pork roast is best served immediately when served warm as part of a meal. This recipe may be prepared ahead and chilled for later service cold. When ready, slice meat and serve cold with horseradish, mustard and/or cooked fruit. I prefer using leftovers for sandwiches (chilled in the refrigerator) since this not-so-tender cut of meat does not do well with reheating. If you use leftovers warmed, it is best to heat them in a stock or gravy.