Wherefore art Thou, HAM HOCK?

Did you ever wonder just what is a ham hock? And why does a ham have a hock, but nothing else on the planet seems to? If someone were to call you ham hock, would that be an insult? These are questions I feel we’ve all pondered a time or two, amiright?

Well, obviously, I not only have the answer to these deep, dark questions, I’m going to help you make this obscure little tidbit of deliciousness a big part of your life.

For you to truly understand the ham hock, first I’ll explain a little pig anatomy. In the restaurant industry, unless we’re using a suckling pig (yum), we utilize full-grown hogs. Next, the ham refers to the hind leg portion of the hog. This was named after Shakespeare’s character Hamlet because he acted like such a pig in the play.

OK, the Hamlet thing is a lie, but the ham really is the hind leg. Generally the ham extends only as far as the shinbone. The shin is known as the shank, and below the shank is the hock. If you’re paying attention, you know that leg area is commonly called the ankle. Ergo, the hock is the ankle. But the ankle is not technically part of the ham because the shank separates the two. Confusing? Yes. Important? No.

Ham hocks can be purchased fresh, but in our part of the world, they’re mostly sold smoked. Because the cut is already cooked, chefs treat it like a seasoning. And what a glorious seasoning it is! The salty, smoky, exquisite flavor profile adds amazing depth to braises and stews. Among the many partners for smoked ham hocks are legumes. A carefully prepared white bean and ham hock soup is a beautiful thing.

As I sit here watching the snowy Winter Olympics, I fantasize on the many ways a nice smoked ham hock is best enjoyed. While white beans are nice, a spicy Cuban-style black bean soup with our friendly ham hocks is quite tantalizing. I might use the ham hocks to flavor a big pot of Lentils du Puy, or maybe even an old-school split-pea and ham hock soup. I can also stay nicely Southern with my ham hock thoughts and drop a couple into a pan of collards.

Just remember the basic ham hock rule: Cover them in stock over low heat, allowing them to release flavor and the gelatin from all their natural connective tissues. And last, pull all the meat from the bones and return it to the broth. (BTW, being called a ham hock is definitely a Cheffed-Up compliment.)

Chef Bill’s Braised Collard Greens

  • 1 tbsp. bacon fat
  • 1 ham hock
  • 1 cup onion, small dice
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 cup water 
  • 1 lb. collards, stemmed, 3-inch ribbons
  • 1 bouquet garni
  • 2 tsp. honey
  • 1 tbsp. cider vinegar
  • Salt, pepper and Tabasco to taste


  1. Sweat the onion in the bacon fat, add the collards, stock, water, ham hock and honey.
  2. Season with salt and pepper, bring to a simmer, cover, add the bouquet garni, reduce heat to low.
  3. Cook for 40 minutes, stir occasionally, adding water if too dry.
  4. Add vinegar and Tabasco, adjust seasoning.

Until we cook again,

Email Chef Bill Thompson, owner of Fernandina Beach’s Amelia Island Culinary Academy, at [email protected], for inspiration and get Cheffed-Up!