Flavor Boosters: Ham Hocks

There's not a lot of actual meat on ham hocks, but boy oh boy, do they add flavor! Throw one of these strange knobby looking things in a pot of beans or some braising greens, and your whole dish will take on new savory dimensions!Ham hocks are really the bottom of the shank (leg) of the pig very close to the ankle, or sometimes with the ankle. This part of the pig contains a lot of connective tissue, so besides adding great flavor to the dish, ham hocks add a wonderful rich silky mouthfeel as the collagen in the connective tissue melts out.

You can find ham hocks fresh and cured, but we love them best when they're smoked! These give dishes a sweet-smoky flavor that you just can't duplicate with barbecue sauce or liquid smoke.

We generally use ham hocks in braises, soups, and other liquid-based dishes. The meat braises slowly while releasing its flavor. When the dish is done, you can pull off the bits of meat and put them back in the dish. Or you can do what we do: hide them from everyone else and eat them ourselves!

Oh, and we almost forgot our favorite thing about ham hocks: they're cheap! You can usually buy them for just a dollar or two, and they freeze well if you find them on sale. Ask your butcher about them if you don't see them displayed.

Here are a few recipes from our archives that call for ham hocks or that could definitely use one!

Cuban Black Bean Soup
Fridge-Clearing Lentil Soup
Braised and Spicy Collard Greens
Creamed Fresh Pea Soup
Cooking Beans in the Slow Cooker

How do you use ham hocks in your cooking?

Related: Cook's Tricks: How to Properly Season a Dish

(Image: Flickr member Southern Foodways Alliance licensed under Creative Commons)

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