Ham Shanks and Ham Hocks

Ham Shanks and Ham HocksThe colder months of winter are the perfect time for slowly-simmered soups to warm you up. One of the easiest and best ways to punch up the flavor of any soup is to add a ham hock or ham shank into the pot. While the soup simmers the smokey flavor of the ham permeates the soup while adding a little salt. A meatier shank can also be a perfect way to add extra protein by way of the cooked meat falling off the bone. But is one better than the other?

From a culinary standpoint, ham hocks and ham shanks are essentially interchangeable with just two differences between the two. Ham hocks tend to be bonier and have less meat on them because they come from the area of the leg that is closest to the foot of the pig. Ham shanks, on the other hand, are meatier because they come from the area just below the shoulder or the hip. Both contain a considerable amount of collagen which adds richness to whatever recipe you are making. And, both require long cooking times using methods like braising or stewing to break down the tough meat into something that can be eaten.

Ham hocks and ham shanks are widely available and inexpensive—though, the shanks tend to be a little bit higher priced. Both freeze really well. They are almost always available smoked but occasionally you will see unsmoked ham shanks. If you do, grab them and throw them in your freezer for another time. You can cook the unsmoked shanks the same way you would cook a lamb of beef shank. Served alongside some creamy white beans and sautéed greens, they make for a tasty satisfying winter dinner.

Gam’s Navy Bean Soup
Yields 6 to 8 servings

Gam’s Navy Bean Soup is great to have in your freezer for chilly nights, or for a tasty lunch during rainy season. This is a lazy Sunday type recipe so if you find yourself with a free afternoon, give it a try.

1 pound dried navy beans
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large onions, chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
About 2 pounds ham hocks, sawed into halves
1 teaspoon each dried rosemary and thyme
1 teaspoon dried mustard
1 bay leaf
4 cups chicken broth
Salt and Pepper to taste

Prep the beans
Sort through the beans and discard any debris. Rinse the beans and drain well. Place the beans in a 6 to 8-quart pot. Cover generously with water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from heat, cover, and let stand at least 1 hour. Drain and discard the water. Set the beans aside.

Alternatively, you could soak the beans overnight. Drain them and continue with the recipe.

Make the veggies
Heat the oil in the same pot. Cook the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, and parsley, uncovered, over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is quite limp (about 10 minutes).

Finish the soup
Add the beans, ham hocks, rosemary, thyme, mustard, bay leaf, broth and 1-1/2 quarts of the water. Bring the liquid to a boil. Cover the pot, reduce the heat, and simmer the soup until meat is tender enough to pull from bones easily and the beans mash readily (about 3 hours).

If you prefer a creamier version, puree half the soup and add it back in with the beans.

Carefully shred the meat off of the ham hocks.

Serve hot.

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