What Is a Ham Hock—and What's a Good Substitute?
Here’s what you need to know.
Ham hocks are essential to that distinctive, rich, meaty flavor you probably associate with split pea soup and Southern greens. But what exactly is the cut of pork—and what can you use if you can’t find one? Here’s what you need to know:
What Is Ham Hock and Where Is It on a Pig?
A ham hock, or pork knuckle, is the joint that attaches a pig’s foot to its leg. While a hock is not technically an ankle, its anatomical location corresponds to that of a human ankle or lower calf region.
Ham hocks are not to be confused with the pig’s shank (shin) or trotter (foot).
Ham hocks are used primarily to flavor dishes.
As it is, the hock itself isn’t particularly appetizing. It mostly consists of skin, tendons, and ligaments. The meaty parts require a lot of cooking to become palatable.
That’s not to say they can’t be eaten by themselves. Ham hocks are eaten whole in many traditional European recipes (like the German Eisbein or Polish Golonka).
Most often, though, they’re cooked slowly with soups, vegetables, or sauces.
As the hock cooks in hot liquid, its collagen and fat dissolve into the stew, imparting a distinctive, savory, smoky taste unique to the cut of meat.
The humble ham hock is essential to various traditional dishes in the American South. In particular, it’s a key ingredient in many collard greens and pinto beans recipes.
Other dishes you may be familiar with that rely on ham hocks for their rich and smoky flavor are split pea soup and certain navy bean recipes.
Where to Buy a Ham Hock?
You can buy them fresh, but hocks are typically cured with salt and smoked—that’s what gives them that delicious, bacon-y flavor.
In general, ham hocks are not hard to find. They’re available in most grocery stores and butcher shops. Many times, they’re sold in pairs.
The best part? Ham hocks are usually dirt cheap (often just a few dollars per pound).
Ham Hock Substitute
Hector Manuel Sanchez
If you can’t find a ham hock, don’t worry. You can easily substitute pork shank, smoked bacon, or smoked sausage without affecting the recipe too much.
Not eating pork? Smoked turkey bacon should work just fine.
Vegetarians may have a tougher time replicating the ham hock’s rich flavor and mouthfeel. When you’re cooking a recipe that calls for ham hock sans meat, make sure to add extra oil to compensate for the lack of renderings. It’s also important to increase the amount of salt and seasoning, as it’s not absorbing the savory flavor from the pork.
Meanwhile, smoke and paprika can help make up for the lost smokiness.
Ham Hock Recipes
Ready to try your hand at cooking with ham hocks? Check out a few of our favorite recipes that call for the cut of pork: