A lot of us Northern gals who lived in the 'burbs and learned to cook during the '60's and 70's didn't get much experience cooking two of the most flavorful parts of the hog: the hock, and its meatier cousin, the shank. Being Eastern European, fresh pork roasts and chops, smoked hams and pork sausages were cooked often by my mother, but she never used the hock or the shank. I never heard my grandmother make reference to them either, and she was raised on a farm. In the nearby Pennsylania Deutsch (German speaking) farming communities, I heard mention of "ham hocks" for making pot pies, cabbage and potato or white bean soups and stews, but even then, the cooks I knew, like my fiance's grandmother, always used a meaty ham bone. I "blame" my ignorance of them on the region of PA I grew up in, especially because research has oddly revealed that ham hocks are revered by Germans, Eastern Europeans and Southern Americans!
It wasn't until I moved to Happy Valley, PA, in '74 (age 19) and living in my own apartment that I was introduced to the ham hock. It was over a bowl of red beans and rice. Toni (Antoinette), who lived in the apartment upstairs, hailed from Texas but had a Creole grandmother on her paternal family tree. Amongst other Creole specialties, Tony made KILLER red beans and rice, and, she made it clear that a smoked ham hock or ham shank was essential to its preparation!
I've decided to define and discuss both shanks & hocks today!
Culinarily, the ham shank and the ham hock can be used interchangeably.
The shank refers to a fairly meaty part just below the pork shoulder (if it is the front of the hog) or the hip (if it's from the back of the hog). The hock refers to a much bonier cut taken from just above the feet. Both have a thick, tough skin (which is left on) and contain a lot of tendons, ligaments and fat. They contain a lot of collagen too, which adds silkiness to whatever they are cooked in. All of this means they require a long, slow, moist-heat method of cooking, like stewing or braising, to make them edible. They are primarily added to dishes to impart smoky flavor, not substance.
Unlike ham, neither contain enough meat to be the focal point of dinner. Instead, after cooking, the skin is discarded, the meat is removed from the bone and added to hearty dishes containing beans or peas, greens, and/or potatoes or rice.
They're both cheap, but, I prefer the slightly more expensive, meatier ham shank to the bonier ham hock. When I find them on sale, I buy several because they freeze really well.
If you can find the right source, meaning the phone number for the slaughterhouse, you can procure these two cuts of pork unsmoked, and use them just as you would beef, lamb or veal shanks. Otherwise, at least here in America, expect those you purchase over the counter to be cured and smoked in the same manner as ham. Just like ham, the degree to which they are smoked varies from processor to processor. I've never encountered any that have been over-smoked, but, my butcher was kind enough to tell me that some folks like to soak their hocks or shanks in cold water for an hour or two to leach out some of the smokey flavor.
Stay tuned for my next three posts: I making smoked ham shanks three ways!
Cook's Note: If you or someone you know has ever found purchasing ham a bit confusing, you're not alone. All those labels make it a downright hard decision to make. You can read my post ~ Handling Hams: Choose What's Right for You ~ by clicking into Category 15!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos, courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)