This fall we finished building our smokehouse. We have been anxiously waiting to use it for the first time. Mtn Man and Young Man each got their mule deer a couple of weeks ago and Mtn Man wanted to start by trying smoked deer hams, so it was time to get the smoker going. Mtn Man decided to start with hot smoking (as opposed to cold smoking) because it has more wiggle room for beginners to make mistakes without the whole thing being ruined.
First though, the meat needed to be cured. Mtn Man chose to do deer hams as our first smoking experiment because he read that a lot of people really like how they taste. The hams are the top of the back legs. He did two hams for our first trial run, but the smokehouse could have easily held 10 of them at once… of course we would not likely have 10 hams at once, but I am trying to give you an idea of what the smokehouse can hold.
Mtn Man did a combination of injecting and dry curing the hams. He injected a room temperature solution of Morton’s Tender Quick (1C cure to 4C water) parallel to, but not against, the bone. He did 1.5 ounces per pound. Then he measured into a bowl Morton’s Tender Quick at 1 tsp per pound of ham. He rubbed half of it onto them, put them in the refrigerator for 7 days. Then he drained any fluid, patted dry with a paper towel, and rubbed the rest of the cure onto them. They spent another 7 days in the refrigerator. Then he rinsed the hams with warm water and scrubbed all the cure off of them. He patted them dry and then hung them in the smokehouse. He inserted a corded remote meat thermometer deep into the biggest ham without touching the bone. The display for the meat thermometer is magnetic and stuck nicely on the metal roof of the smokehouse once the cord went through the door. We could easily check the internal temperature of the meat without opening the door of the smokehouse.
The first thing to do is to dry the hams completely before cooking. Mtn Man decided to dry them in the smokehouse. He started a small fire in the smokehouse stove and within 30 minutes they were dry without raising their temperature (this isn’t how one would do it if one lived in a more humid climate). Then he started a good, hot fire with a lot of small chunks of hickory and oak to increase the smoke created.
He smoked the hams for 12 hours, checking on them every 20-30 minutes to be sure the fire was going right and that the meat temperature was increasing properly. He started them first thing in the morning, but by 12 hours they were still about 5 degrees below finished and the sun had set and it was quickly getting cold. He decided to just finish them off in the oven instead of fight the dark and cold night. After about 20 minutes in the over they reached 160 degrees F. They were done! They were very black on the outside from the smoke. And we noticed they were a lot fatter than they started – they shrunk in length but got wider…interesting.
We were excited to cut into one of the them, but we resisted and let them rest 30 minutes. Then we cut into one. We learned quite a bit from slicing them open. First, we learned that Mtn Man had not injected the cure evenly all over the entire ham. So part of the ham were cured (bright pink/red sections) and other sections were not, so they were just roasted (grey/brown sections). Both sections were still safe to eat. Next time, he will work harder at being sure the cure gets injected throughout.
We all tasted them and they were a hit with everyone! The brown portions that had not been cured tasted a lot like roast beef. The pink, cured portions tasted somewhat similar to a smoked pork ham, but with less fat and no pork flavor. The most surprising thing to me was the lack of gamey-ness to the flavor. If I was blindfolded and wasn’t told what type of meat it was I would have been hard pressed to guess venison. We even buzzed some of it up into ham salad. Delicious!
Overall it was a good first experience. We learned how to better inject the cure, and we all really enjoyed the finished product. What will we smoke next in the smokehouse!?