What Is a Ham Hock and How Do You Cook with One?

Ham hock...what the hock is that? It's the secret ingredient used for infusing flavor into soups, stocks, bean dishes and more.

There’s something magical about braised collard greens and long-simmered bean dishes. They have a deeply savory, umami-rich flavor that’s simultaneously salty, smoky and sweet. Many recipes use smoked pork products like bacon to achieve these flavors. While bacon is convenient, quick-cooking and flavorful, we suggest using ham hocks instead. We’ll be the first to admit that hocks are a little scary looking, and they take a long time to cook, but trust us: using one will take your recipes to the next level.

What Is a Ham Hock?

graphic of different cuts of pork on a pigSydney Watson/Taste of Home

Ham hock (also called pork knuckle) comes from the area in the pork leg closest to the foot. Actually, it’s the joint that connects the leg to the foot, which isn’t exactly appealing to think about. They don’t look very appetizing either; the four-inch-long knuckle has very little meat and is encased in fat, tendons and ligaments surrounded by a thin layer of skin. So why use them if they’re so weird-looking? All that connective tissue breaks down to create collagen and gelatin as it cooks, thickening the cooking liquid while also infusing it with a ton of flavor.

The hocks can be sold as fresh pork hocks, but they’re generally referred to as ham hocks when they’re cured with salt (similar to bacon) and smoked to create a deeply rich flavor. Ham hocks are sometimes confused with ham shanks, which are meatier and come a little higher on the leg towards the hip or shoulder.

Find all the cuts of pork you should know about.

What Is a Ham Hock Used For?

hearty navy bean soupTaste of Home

Ham hock is most often used to make soups or stocks because it needs to be simmered for hours to break down and soften. It’s traditionally added to low-and-slow dishes that use a slow cooker, like split pea soup or braised collard greens. The little meat that exists on the joint is sometimes shredded and added to the soup, but the hock is often used as a flavoring agent only. After the collagen and fat dissolve into the cooking liquid, the hock is often tossed away.

Take a trip to Germany, though, and you’ll find pork knuckle served whole. There, the meatier, rear pork knuckles are roasted or fried until the exterior turns into a crunchy crackling, creating the Oktoberfest-favorite dish called Schweinshaxen.

Recipes That Call for Ham Hocks

Is a Ham Hock the Same as Ham?

Ham and ham hocks are both cured and smoked, and they both impart a similar flavor to dishes prepared with them. That said, they are not the same. Ham is a lean roast that comes from the hind leg of the hog. Ham hocks are the knuckle bone, so they contain little meat and are composed instead of skin, fat, bone and collagen.

What Can I Substitute for a Ham Hock?

Ham hocks may be hard to find at the grocery store, but they’re usually located in the butcher section or in the cured meats section (near the bacon). You may also find them vacuum sealed in the freezer section. If you can’t find one at your local store or butcher shop, it’s easy to substitute other pork products.

The best substitute for ham hock is ham bone. These bones are usually smoked and impart a similar flavor profile to ham hocks. Ham shanks also work, although they’re often sold as fresh instead of smoked. Ham shanks also have significantly more meat on the bone compared to hocks, so you’ll want to make sure you have a plan to shred it to add to the recipe or save the shredded meat for later.

Other smoked pork products (like bacon, smoked sausage or regular ham) make suitable substitutes, but they don’t need to be cooked nearly as long as ham hocks.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.