Hamming it Up: A Survey of the World's Great Hams
"I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the manmade sound never equalled the purity of the sound achieved by the pig." Alfred Hitchcock (1899 to 1980), film director and producer
I get emails from people all year round, but especially at Easter, asking how to cook a ham. Not so fast. First I need to know which kind of ham do you have? A true ham is a rear leg of a hog from hip to knee. Most have a bone in it, but some are boneless. Sounds simple, right? I wish. There are exceptions, the picnic ham, which comes from the lower part of the front leg, and the turkey ham, which comes from a fowl (whose idea was this?). Let's clarify the murk. Here's what you need to know when shopping for a ham and tips for cooking it. Folks who follow me here weekly know my specialty is outdoor cooking, but these tips can easily be adapted for indoors.
Three major categories
Fresh Ham (a.k.a. Leg) is a raw uncured uncooked rear leg, usually with the skin still on. The meat is the typical pale pink to beige color of raw pork. It can be roasted, skin on or off, and it is especially good with the skin removed and smoke roasted. Click here for some of the cuts that are available from the leg.
Dry-Cured Ham is cured (preserved) by burying it a big mound of salt or by rubbing the skin with salt, often mixed with sugar, black pepper, garlic, and other spices. In some places sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are also added. It is then usually hung and air-dried for 6-18 months at cool temperatures, and it dehydrates significantly, concentrating its flavor. Often it is smoked at low temperatures. They are usually pink to brown and can be purchased as a whole ham, half a ham, and is usually served uncooked and sliced thin. Because their production takes a lot of time, dry-cured hams can be expensive. At the top of this page we see Prosciutto di Parma, the famous dry cured ham of Italy, and directly above we see a smoked Virginia ham.
Wet-Cured Ham is the most popular ham in the US. Often called a City Ham, as opposed to Country Ham, it is meat that is skinned and cured by soaking in a brine or injecting it with a cure. A cure is a salt and water solution with some or all of these ingredients: Sugar, sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate, sodium erythorbate, sodium phosphate, potassium chloride, liquid smoke, and other flavorings. These ingredients will appear on the label. Many people fear that nitrites and nitrates are dangerous, but recent research has contradicted early research that started the scare. Click here for more on nitirites and nitrates. Some wet-cured hams are cooked and labeled as "ready to eat". Some are sold uncooked as "cook before eating". By law these must have prominent labeling with safe handling and cooking instructions. When you get them home, they can be roasted or smoked depending on whether they have been pre-smoked or pre-cooked. For pre-cooked wet-cured hams, paint with a sweet and savory glaze, heat to 140°F, and serve. That's all there is to it. Yes, 140°F seems low, but that's what USDA says is safe since it is cured. For uncooked wet-cured hams, take them up to 160°F.
Other important ham types
Bayonne Ham is a dry-cured French ham.
Black Forest Ham is a German dry-cured and smoked ham.
Brine Cured Ham. See wet-cured ham.
Canned Ham can contain scraps and pieces of meat pressed and formed to fit in the can and may contain up to 10% water or broth. Usually under three pounds. Canned ham labeled "shelf stable" can be stored at room temp for three years. I have no idea how to cook them and no interest in learning.
City Ham. An unofficial term used to describe wet-cured ham. It is usually sold in a plastic bag in the refrigerator case and labeled "ready to cook", "partially cooked" or "ready to serve". The better city hams also say "ham in natural juices".
Corned Ham. Corning is the word for curing with salt. Corned beef is fresh beef packed with salt and aged much like the dry cured hams above but not as long. Ditto corned ham. It is popular in Maryland and the Carolinas. Basically, you get a fresh ham, remove the skin (or not), pack it with kosher or pickling salt, wrap it with plastic wrap, put it in a pot in the fridge and turn it occasionally, then after a week, rinse off the salt and roast or simmer it. In Southern Maryland, corned ham is stabbed all over with a knife and the slits filled with a mix of cabbage, kale, collards, onions, and herbs to make a dish they call Stuffed Ham.
Country Ham (shown at right) is the generic name for American dry-cured ham. Sometimes it is smoked, most of the time it is not. It can be served uncooked, and often is, much as prosciutto or other European hams. If it is to be cooked, it needs to be soaked in an ice water bath for 4 to 12 hours, then simmered for 25 minutes per pound or until it hits 160°F internal, then glazed, and browned at 325°F for 15 minutes. Whew.
Green Ham is not a ham covered with green mold meant to accompany green eggs and green beer, although some dry-cured hams do have a mold on them. It is a cured ham that has not been smoked. This is not an official USDA controlled definition, however.
Half Ham. Because whole hams are very large, many producers cut them into butt end and shank end. Butt half is from higher up, on the rump, and has more meat and fat. It is also easier to carve and usually more expensive. It is not to be confused with pork butt which is from the shoulder. Don't ask. The shank half is less fatty.
Ham Steak is usually a cross section slice of wet-cured smoked ham with a round section of thigh bone in the middle. It is good when grilled quickly with or without a glaze or sauce.
Picnic Hams are not really a ham, but a front leg from the shoulder socket through to the elbow sold raw. They usually run 5-8 pounds without the skin. Follow my instructions for cooking pulled pork.
Prosciutto is Italian dry-cured ham preserved with salt, lard, and often other spices. It is occasionally smoked, but usually is not. It is made in many locations around Italy and named after the area of origin such as Prosciutto di Toscano from Tuscany. It is best when the meat is pale pink and the fat is cream colored and is usually sliced paper thin and eaten uncooked (crudo), fat and all. When fresh cut, it has a concentrated briny flavor and the fat is buttery. It is often wrapped around melon chunks, chopped in salads, or on a sandwich. There are numerous recipes that use prosciutto cooked as an ingredient such as pizza.
Prosciutto di Parma or Parma Ham is prosciutto from the Parma region of Italy. It is regarded by many as the best of the Italian hams and made according to strict regulations and supervision. That's Prosciutto di Parma aging in the picture at the top of the page.
Pumped Ham. See wet-cured ham.
Serrano Ham (Jam—n Serrano) and Ibérico Ham (Jam—n Ibérico) are the most prized Spanish dry-cured hams. Ibérico Ham hogs are fed acorns and there are several grades depending on how much of their feed is acorns.
Smithfield Ham is a dry-cured country ham from Smithfield, VA. There is a potential point of confusion because the world's largest pork product producer, Smithfield Foods, originally founded in Smithfield but now with plants all over the world, makes a range of hams, most of which are not country hams. Got it?
Smoked Ham has usually been wet-cured and then smoked. It is, sometimes, simply smoked without the cure.
Smoked Ham Rump. A big gumdrop shaped portion of a smoked ham.
Speck. Dry cured ham, like prosciutto, that is then smoked gently. The most famous are from northern Italy's mountainous region. There is a surprising natural sweetness and baconlike quality. It is served like prosciutto, sliced paper thin. If you see it, buy it.
Spiral-Cut or Spiral Hams are skinned, wet-cured, and pre-cooked, usually coated with a sweet glaze and vacuum packed in plastic wrap. They usually weigh 7-10 pounds. They can be cooked but be careful because they can dry out easily. If you must heat them, wrap in foil and cook at 325°F for about 10 minutes per pound. Bring it up to 140°F.
Turkey Ham is turkey thigh meat wet-cured and cooked. Why does USDA let this be called ham?
York Ham. A dry cured ham from Great Britain.
Virginia Ham is similar to Smithfield Ham, but it is not from Smithfield proper.
Westphalian Ham is dry-cured and smoked German ham from hogs fed acorns.
This page was revised