Cheap & Easy Flavor: Smoked Ham Bone

Ingredient Spotlight

It's a zombie invasion! Oh wait, no...just a ham bone. Phew. While this may not be the prettiest of ingredients, it is an inexpensive way to round out a pot of soup and add an enormous boost of rich flavor while you're at it. Skip the zombies, keep the meat. Ham bones are just the thing for a cozy winter meal.

An average ham bone will weigh a few pounds and run you $4 or less. I most often see them smoked, like ham hocks or turkey legs, but you'll sometimes find them fresh. Personally, I love the subtle woodsmoke flavor that a smoked ham bone gives a dish and will seek it out whenever possible.

Depending on exactly where it's been cut, the ham bone usually consists of one or two long leg bones with a few smaller bones at the joints. There's quite a bit of meat on those bones! I usually get between 1 1/2 cups and 2 cups off one ham bone, plus the bone itself gives the soup a silky, rich consistency.

You may have to do a bit of searching before you find them at your grocery store. Sometimes they're in the butcher's case, other times they're wedged onto a far shelf of the refrigerated section. They're not a super-fancy item only found at gourmet grocery stores—I buy mine at the local Safeway. If you can't find them, just ask.

Both fresh and smoked ham bones need to be cooked thoroughly before eating and do best when simmered slowly for hours in a pot of soup. Just settle the entire whole ham bone into the middle of the pot and let it cook. Once the meat becomes so tender that it falls off the bone, scoop out the big pieces, shred them, and return them to the pot. (Also, discard the bones!)

If you can't find ham bones, look for ham hocks. These tend to have less meat than the ham bones, but work just as well for adding flavor and richness. Smoked turkey legs are another good, low-cost substitute.

Some Favorite Recipes for Cooking Ham Bones:

Ham Bone, Greens, and Bean Soup
Cuban Black Bean Soup
Minnesota Wild Rice and Mushroom Soup
Black-Eyed Pea Soup with Andouille and Collards
Lentil Soup

Do you ever cook with ham bones? What are your favorite recipes?

Related: Ham or Vegetarian? Two Ways to Make Split Pea Soup

(Image: Emma Christensen)