Growing up, my grandfather’s pot of pinto beans wasn’t complete without a ham hock thrown in for good measure. One ham hock never seemed like much–it was about the size of a fist. But somehow, it changed the flavor and texture of the entire dish.
Ham hocks boost the flavor and add body to any dish they’re added to—they make an incredible soup base. They also store well, particularly in the freezer. They're cheaper than bacon (well under $3.00 per pound at the markets where I shop). Plus, they have a whole lot more to offer.
Here’s everything you need to know about ham hocks and how to use them to improve your cooking.
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What Is a Ham Hock?
Ham hocks are joints connecting the ham shank to the foot. Fun fact: Hocks are not ankles, though they contain a great deal of skin, bone, and connective tissue that’s rich in collagen.
Collagen is a wonder ingredient for soups and stews. It adds body, thickening the cooking liquid, and in the case of smoked ham hocks, imparts a deeply meaty flavor. If you’ve ever sipped a hearty spoonful of soup that left a deliciously supple coating on your tongue, you can thank collagen for that.
Ham hocks are often sold smoked or cured, but they can also be found fresh or even frozen. Smoked ham hocks can impart more flavor than fresh or frozen.
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How Do You Cook with a Ham Hock?
Ham hocks have lots of fat, bone, and connective tissue, plus a little meat, so it requires long cooking to release flavor and tenderize. The high amount of connective tissue makes ham hocks especially great for braising. All of that time is well worth it.
Our Black Beans with Ham Hocks and Dry Sherry recipe calls for a 2-hour simmer. Ham hocks can be cooked separately or braised in the dish provided enough time is allotted for the connective tissue to break down. The meat can then be picked off the bones and removed from the skin, but the skin is delicious too, if cooked long enough.
Cooking with a ham hock requires minimal effort (just toss it in and wait!), but there are ways to get the most out of each one.
- Smoked hocks should be rinsed before use to remove excess salt. They can then be sliced to maximize surface area, ensuring that the most fat and collagen are rendered out. In our recipe for Hoppin' John, the hock is split vertically along the bone to speed up cooking.
- Fresh ham hock skin should be scored to help render out more fat.
- Frozen hocks don’t need to be thawed before use.