The Nasty Bits: Ham Hock


This is a ham hock, the lower segment of the pig that corresponds to the ankle or calf region. A hock is not fatty but can be made tender from all the collagen that breaks down during cooking. Best of all, the whole thing is covered in skin, and as I always say, the more skin, the better.

I once described the surface of crispy pork skin as akin to "pustules," a term that I thought captured the way the surface bubbles up in hot oil or in a hot oven. The term "pustules" was too much for my friend David. He said it sounded medical or clinical, and why not go one step further and describe the surface of crispy pork skin as riddled with warts or wens? Sebaceous cysts, even. Well, fair enough. I concede that "pustules" does call to mind bodily ailments that are to be avoided, but how else can one describe the bubbled-up skin that exudes fatty and porky juices?


Eating a cut of pork with a broad swath of skin always feels to me like a more intimate experience of the animal. My knife, or I guess it's really just my wrist, is quivering with anticipation whenever I cut down into the crispy skin. Then you get past the skin and the meat is fork-tender, the muscle groups bound together with collagen so that sections of flesh seem to slip off.


You have a few options for how to get the skin to blister and bubble. Most effective would be deep-frying the whole thing. First you braise the hock (doing so also yields a bonus batch of pork stock); then you fry the hock in wok so that the skin gets even heat exposure and crisps up in a jiffy. The only downside, of course, is that you have to use a lot of oil and you have to own a wok, and after you're through you're left with a wok full of oil. This is not so much of a problem as a temptation for too many subsequent batches of tempura and donuts and so forth.

As an alternative, you can broil the hock, or put it on your grill now that the weather's shaping up. Neither method gives you skin as crispy as deep-frying, but both ways give you very satisfying products.

The Germans are very fond of hock, which is more often than not called pork knuckle on their menus (and some Chinese menus, too). You can go any which way in terms of what sides you prepare to serve with your hock, but I often sauté cabbage with a little balsamic vinegar.

Once the cabbage softens, I spread it on the bottom of the skillet, and by the time the skin has crisped up, the cabbage caramelizes and soaks up some of the fat drippings. I have really strong feelings for this cabbage; I wouldn't go so far as saying that I make this hock just so I can have the cabbage, but just about.

Conveniently, you can use the softened cabbage as a blanket to cover up the parts of the hock where flesh is exposed. This way the meat won't dry out during broiling. In fact the hock meat remains so tender and delicious that it can be served as-is with some salt and pepper. I like it with a simple mustard vinaigrette, in a little bowl on the side.