It’s great to have friends that share your interests – friends you can bounce ideas off of and discover and perfect new ways of doing things. I have such a friend in Deryl Markgraf. Deryl and I met a few years ago and became instant friends. The love of hunting wild hogs and then transforming the meat into tasty meals created the bond between us, and lots of time together hunting and fishing strengthened that bond.
My friend is not a person that delves lightly into anything. He is a degreed engineer and, like most engineers, he has a way of looking at any topic way past the superficial and into the core. There is either a concise, clear answer or there is not. If the answer to any question is questionable, Deryl begins researching the topic until he is satisfied he has the correct solution. I spent a career as a surveyor and had many civil engineers as bosses. Most were great guys and gals, but many were so analytical that they lost me in casual conservation. I would make a statement – say, tell them about a fish I might have caught that was close to being a new water-body record, or … whatever. They would want to know all the pertinent details. Which lake? What was previous record? What exactly did my fish weigh? Was it weighed on certified scales? You get the picture!
Well, my buddy Deryl is about as analytical as a person can be and an astute researcher on any topic that sparks his interest. But it just so happens that Deryl’s interest and mine coincide when it comes to hunting and cooking wild game. The big difference is that his innovative way of thinking often leads to solutions that I would never discover on my own. Yes, my buddy is very analytical, but in a good way. We have lots of fun exploring new hog hunting and cooking techniques, and I’ve learned a lot from him. Curing and smoking whole, bone-in wild hog hams is a good case in point.
Several years ago, I began curing and smoking “chunks” of wild pork, sometimes the backstraps of wild hogs or pieces of the upper hams. This home-cured, smoked, sugar-cured ham became a big hit with Deryl and many of my other friends. Deryl was quick to pick up on the simple technique and began making his own ham. We discussed curing whole, bone-in hams, but I was always hesitant, because I was afraid the center of the hams would not cure and my efforts, and ham, would be wasted. Enter my engineer buddy to continue with the research and, just this past week, put his first wild hog ham on his Smokin Tex smoker!
Working with domestic pork is different than the meat from wild hogs. Wild porkers have to work for a living as opposed to living in a pen where they simply walk up to the feeding trough and pig out! Their muscles are used constantly. Long, slow cooking with moisture will get even the toughest wild pork tender but, when curing and smoking ham, the trick is to impart the smoked flavor to the cured meat by slowly increasing the temperatures.
Deryl began by injecting a mixture of Morton’s Tender Quick and water throughout the ham and allowing the meat to cure in the refrigerator for six days. The curing process causes pork to take on that beautiful, pinkish color of ham. Deryl’s goal was to have a fully cooked, whole wild-hog ham, and this requires making sure the meat is heated to a minimum of 140 degrees. It’s virtually impossible to heat a solid chunk of meat weighing six or seven pounds so that the entire piece heats at the same rate. Obviously the shank end will get warmer quicker than the center of the ham next to the bone. Keep in mind, there is little fat on the outside of a wild-pork ham, thus it’s necessary to baste occasionally to avoid the exterior from drying out. A mixture of brown sugar and water can be used and when smoking smaller chunks of cured ham. I’ve often used honey.
Deryl set the temperature of his Smokin Tex electric smoker to 140 degrees and let the ham slow smoke for a couple hours and gradually increased the temperature up to 180 degrees. An internal probe thermometer set close to the bone will let you know when the ham is thoroughly cooked. Cooking times depends upon many factors, so it’s important to keep a constant read on the internal temperature.
Through the years, I have been asked countless times, “Luke, are those wild hogs good to eat?” My answer is always a resounding YES, but cooking wild, tougher pork greatly differs from domestic hogs. I have fooled friends at camp by tenderizing wild pork steaks and chicken frying them. Even veteran eaters of wild game often cannot differentiate chicken fried pork from venison. With all the wild pork roaming the woods and fields these days, we that love to hunt and eat them are living in the days of plenty. We are literally in “hog heaven!” Guys like Deryl and myself understand that wild porkers do damage to fields and crops and do harm to ground-nesting birds and other native wildlife. So our mantra is kill all of them we can and turn all that good pork into tasty meals. We eat what we can and give the rest to others to enjoy.
I am currently on a quest for a wild porker, and I think I know just the feeder to hunt to find one! I have just about depleted my supply of fresh pork in the freezer. I plan to use a maple sugar cure blend from Butcher Packer Supply on my first whole wild hog ham. Deryl and I will compare the finished product with the cure he used. We are always in experiment and learning mode!
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