Ham hocks are a tasty part of the pig and are used in a variety of savory dishes. Because this cut of meat is from the joint on the trotter, or foot of the pig, it is tough, with most of the ham hock comprised of skin, bone, fat, and collagen. Ham hocks are smoked, and require a lot of cooking to make them palatable as a stand-alone dish; they are not often served on their own but instead are used as an ingredient to enhance soups, stock, and pots of beans, adding a smoky, meaty, and rich essence. They are inexpensive, sold fresh and frozen, but can be difficult to find.
What Are Ham Hocks?
Ham hocks, also called pork knuckles, are cut from the bottom part of the swine's leg. They are thick, approximately four inches long, and part of the leg that's encased with collagen, connective tissue, and a bit of meat, all surrounded by a thick layer of fat and skin. While hefty, ham hocks aren't prime cuts of meat and tend to cost less than more popular options such as bacon, chops, and loin.
Ham hocks are often cured with salt before being smoked, a technique that lends a salty bacon-like flavor. Even without this process, ham hocks lend a rich, porky flavor when cooked for a long time by stewing or braising. Ham hocks are used in cuisines from all over the world, including in the American south where they are commonly cooked with collards or pinto beans.
How To Cook Ham Hocks
The best way to cook ham hocks is low and slow, such as in a slow cooker, which allows the meat to cook in its own juices and become tender and pliable. The pork can then be shredded or minced and used in soups, quiche, or on top of a salad. Braising also brings about the same results, though it's a more hands-on approach. Marinating or brining will tenderize the meat, and boiling will help the meat become malleable and succulent. To get crispy skin and render some of the pork fat, roasting proves best.
Ham hocks are used in a variety of cuisines. In Pennsylvania, ham hocks are the key ingredient in scrapple, a type of meatloaf popular with the Pennsylvania Dutch. In some cultures—like Eastern Europe—ham hocks are boiled, roasted, or fried and presented whole. In Germany, there is schweinshaxe, or roasted ham hock, and eisbein, which is pickled ham hock. Bavaria has similar dishes, and in Austria, a caraway and garlic broth is used to boil ham hocks before they're roasted for a plate called stelze. Poland has golonka, a type of barbecued ham hock.
Switzerland and Sweden both have famous dishes using ham hocks, wädli and fläsklägg med rotmos respectively, the latter being a cured version served with mashed root vegetables and sweet mustard. Chinese cooking also features ham hocks in a variety of ways, from fried, braised, roasted, and stewed, where they are served whole, sliced, or chopped.
What Do Ham Hocks Taste Like?
Ham hocks have a rich, smoky, and porky taste similar to bacon. They add a meaty essence to any dish, and even if the actual pig knuckle isn't consumed, the flavor remains in whatever it's cooked with.
Ham Hocks vs. Bacon
Both ham hocks and bacon can be used to enhance a dish with smoky, salty flavors that add richness to just about anything they are mixed with. But unlike bacon, ham hocks have less rendered fat and more collagen, a direct result of having a bone. Because ham hocks and bacon can be used almost interchangeably when it involves soups, stews, braised vegetables, or casseroles, ham hocks tend to get overlooked. However, often ham hocks prove cheaper and add less fat to the dish, so in some cases, they may be the better option.
Ham Hock Recipes
Whether using ham hocks as a main dish or an ingredient mixed into a soup or pot of beans, this smoky, umami-rich food is a great addition to many recipes. Use ham hocks to enhance greens, serve it glazed with honey and beer, or cook low and slow to get every meaty morsel off the bones.
- Crock Pot Ham Hocks and Lima Beans
- Polish Ham Hocks With Beer-Honey Glaze
- Hoppin' John (Black Eyed Peas With Ham Hocks)
Where to Buy Ham Hocks
Any good butcher will have ham hocks, and many well-stocked grocery stores will also carry the pig knuckles. Look for fresh or frozen ham hocks in the meat department, often pre-packaged in pairs. Don't be surprised, however, if ham hocks are out of stock as they're not a popular cut of meat. You can always call a local butcher and reserve ahead of time, or buy when you see one and freeze until ready to use. Because of the small amount of meat compared to bone and collagen, and the fact that ham hocks take a long time to cook, this is a very inexpensive cut of pork.
Storing Ham Hocks
Like any cured meat, ham hocks should be kept cool and dry, preferably in the refrigerator. Fresh ham hocks need to be kept cold and used within a week or else stored in the freezer until ready to cook. Ham hocks maintain flavor well and freezing doesn't affect it too much. Once cooked, the ham hock will remain usable in the refrigerator for about a week and longer in the freezer.