Ingredient Intelligence

Ham Hocks Are Your Flavor-Boosting Secret Weapon (and They’re Not Just for Easter)

updated Apr 13, 2022
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roasted pork knuckle meat
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Ham hocks aren’t a food that regularly appears on my grocery list. And yet — every time I eat a recipe made with ham hocks, I’m blown away at the depth of flavor and complex, savory taste. Ham hocks are essentially a culinary superhero, and they’re definitely not just for Easter recipes. 

In fact, as I learned after speaking to a soul food chef and a butcher, most post-Easter soups (like the traditional split pea and ham) are made with bones, not hocks. But they should be made with hocks. The TL;DR version: Ham hocks have tons more flavor and meat than bones. They’re easy to cook, and have a rich culinary history. Let’s dive in.

What is a ham hock?

Ham hocks come from pigs (no surprise there). I asked Kardea Brown, a contemporary Southern cook of Gullah Geechee descent, and host of both Food Network’s Delicious Miss Brown and The Great Soul Food Cook-Off, to give me the facts. (Brown is also publishing her first cookbook, The Way Home, available for pre-order on Amazon and elsewhere) The ham hock is located at the bottom part of the leg, or shank, close to the ankle, Brown says. “It’s also called pork knuckle,” she noted; you may see it labeled with either descriptor. This part of the pig contains a lot of connective tissue, so besides adding great flavor to the dish, ham hocks bring a rich textural element to prepared dishes.

Ham hocks appear most commonly in soul food cuisine, which, Brown explains, has a direct link all the way back to slavery. “There’s a phrase called ‘high on the hog,’ she says. “Slave owners would dine on more desirable cuts such as ham, sausage, and bacon, while slaves were given less desirable parts of the hog — ‘low on the hog.’” Low on the hog parts included intestines, spleen, snout, and yep — the ham hock. Says Brown, “In order to survive and add flavor to their meals, slaves learned how to cook with these ‘undesirable’ cuts of meat.”

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne; Prop Styling: Stephanie Yeh

What is the difference between ham hocks, trotters, and ham bones?

Ham hocks are a totally unique part of the pig. Sam Ehrenfeld, a butcher and farmer who runs Schoolhouse Farm in Vermont with his wife, Brooke, explains: “On the rear legs, a ham hock is composed of the shin bone section, and on the front legs it’s the forearm section. It’s not to be confused with the trotter, which is the foot section — and only available on a skin-on pig.” 

Ham bones, on the other hand, are exactly what they sound like: Just bones, and most typically come from the leg. You’ll most regularly encounter these after you’ve finished your ham dinner, as in the case of a spiral ham

Here’s a handy way to remember the difference: Ham hocks and pork trotters are ingredients to be cooked, whereas a ham bone is the result of something that’s already been cooked. (But you can use the ham bone again, to flavor soups and stews.)

Are there different types of ham hocks?

As Ehrenfeld mentioned above, you may encounter ham hocks from the front or back legs. But when it comes to flavor and use, the important distinction is between smoked and unsmoked hocks. 

Unsmoked Ham Hocks

Unsmoked ham hocks are simpler and easier for butchers to produce, because they’re simply butchered, wrapped, and sold. They can then be used in any recipe that calls for a ham hock, and will impart all of the fatty, collagen-y goodness you’d expect.

Smoked Ham Hocks

“A smoked hock will have a smokey flavor (duh),” explains Ehrenfeld. While delicious, it’s a dominant flavor that may or may not enhance the dish you’re planning on cooking. Another important distinction? Ehrenfeld says, “A smoked hock has been brined — a.k.a. salted —before it’s smoked. So you need to factor that in when you salt the dish you’re preparing.”

Where to buy ham hocks (and what to look for)

If you’re lucky, you may find ham hocks in your grocery store. The ham hocks at most grocery stores will typically be smoked, and, according to Brown, will be located in either the packaged meat section or at the counter. 

Can’t find hocks at your supermarket? Head to a butcher shop, where you’ll be more likely to encounter them — and perhaps even have your choice between smoked or unsmoked options. How can you know you’re getting a quality ham hock? Ehrenfeld encourages customers to ask the same questions they’d raise for any other parts of the pig: “Where and how was the pig raised? Is it a locally produced product? What was it fed? Was it raised in confinement?”

How to store ham hocks

Ham hocks should be kept in the refrigerator, in their original packaging. They’ll last for up to two weeks if vacuum sealed, but if your hock is loosely wrapped in butcher paper, you’ll want to cook it within the next day or two (as with all fresh meat purchases). Didn’t get around to making that recipe? Transfer the ham hock to airtight plastic and pop it in the freezer. These handle freezing well, and will last for months. Thaw in the refrigerator when ready to cook.

How to prep ham hocks

The key to cooking ham hocks, according to Brown, is to think of them as a flavor enhancer, not the main event. There isn’t enough meat on a hock to call it dinner… and besides, most of it is fat and connective tissue, which dissolves into the pot when cooking. But because it’s so superior as a flavor booster, Brown and her family always buy the smoked variety. After that, your creativity can run wild. They most commonly show up in braised vegetables, beans, soups, and stews at Brown’s table, which brings us to another guideline for preparing ham hock.

What to do with ham hocks — and how to cook them.

“Go low and slow!” says Ehrenfeld.  “The muscles in a ham hock are very tough, so they need a long time at low heat to break down.” The adage “Good things are worth waiting for” applies here. Ehrenfeld explains, “Given adequate time, the flavor is like nothing else on a pig: it should be very tender, and have almost a silky texture from all the collagen in the connective tissue that breaks down when it’s cooked properly.”

There’s no need to sear ham hocks before braising or simmering, as you would with, say, short ribs — especially if the meat has been smoked. Simply add it to the pot or pan along with plenty of liquid (water or stock), your ingredients, and aromatics. 

Can you substitute anything for ham hocks?

Technically… no. “A ham bone will add some flavor to a dish, but it’s not interchangeable with a hock,” explains Ehrenfeld. Here’s why: “Any recipe that calls for a hock is assuming that there is meat on it. And a smoked hock in particular will add a lot more flavor to any dish than a ham bone!”

But if you can’t find hocks, or — just as crucial — you don’t eat pork, there’s definitely a viable Plan B. Says Brown, “Smoked turkey legs or necks are great alternatives!”

Some of our favorite ham hock recipes

News you can use: You don’t need a recipe to cook ham hocks. If you have a favorite preparation for low-and-slow beans or greens, you can add the hock right along with the rest of the ingredients and proceed as usual. But if you’re looking for a little more guidance, these recipes are great places to start.

  • Collard Greens: As simple and delicious as it gets. This recipe calls for five ingredients and a little patience. 
  • Slow Cooker Bean Soup: Really lean into the “low and slow” preparation here with a hands-off cooking approach. I’ll note that although the recipe calls for either a ham bone or ham hock, as Brown and Ehrenfeld pointed out above: If you can get a hock, absolutely do.
  • Navy Bean Soup: Creamy, savory, and truly satisfying: This recipe relies on pantry staples, like dried herbs and beans. The ham hock is optional, but cooks in the know will agree it’s a must.
  • Cuban Black Bean Soup: So flavorful, and a great cooking project for days when you’re bopping around the house. The addition of apple cider vinegar is a smart way to brighten the smoky, salty dish. 
  • Split Pea Soup: Although this classic is commonly made with a leftover Easter ham bone, you won’t regret swapping in a smoked ham hock. In addition to more flavor, you’ll be rewarded with savory meat in every bite.