Ham Types and How They Are Made

The Differences Between Smoked, Cured, and Aged Ham

Leg of cured ham
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Ham is a favorite meat for everything from family holiday celebrations to the simple ham and cheese sandwich. How ham is made can influence how you use it.

All types of ham start out as a roast from the hind leg of a hog. This is called a fresh ham. Before it is prepared it is no different than any other pork roast. How it gets to be a ham is something of a complicated story. Hams are prepared in several different ways. They can be aged, cured, smoked, or cooked.

Cured Ham

The ham you get at the store is generally wet or brine-cured. This process involves injecting the ham with a combination of salt, sugar, sodium nitrate, sodium erythorbate, sodium phosphate, potassium chloride, water and/or flavorings. The ham is then cooked to an internal temperature of 150 F. The combination of the chemical brine and the cooking will kill off bacteria and make a ham.

Aged Ham

Today, aging is a different process and does not necessarily require a brine or smoke. Hams are hung in a special room with exact temperature and humidity controls. Hams can spend as much as five years aging and will come out coated in a hard crust of mold. Of course, that is scraped off and washed before eating it. It might not sound terribly appetizing but these hams usually sell at a high price. Aging is done at about 75 F to 95 F (25 to 35 C), at a humidity level of 55 percent to 65 percent for at least 45 days. Good air circulation is necessary to keep the surface of the meat dry to reduce mold growth. Hams of this variety are expensive and limited in availability.

Cold-Smoked Ham

Cold smoking is the proper way to smoke a ham. Cold smoking is done at temperatures well under 100 F (35 C) but more likely around 60 F (15 C), and can go on for days or even weeks. Because the temperature is so low, bacteria is controlled by chemicals in the smoke and the slow drying process. A cold smoked ham does require salt curing (typically in a brine) to keep the bacteria under control throughout the curing process.

Many hams are prepared through a combination of these processes. The premium-priced Smithfield ham uses all of the above ways to preserve meat. If you want to make your own Smithfield ham, start with the hind leg of a hog raised entirely on a diet of peanuts, brine in a saltwater mixture for one to two months, smoke for a week, and then let age for another six months. See why they cost so much?

Homemade Smoked Ham

You can't put a fresh ham in your smoker and have it as ham for dinner that night. It won't be a ham in the way you think of ham, it would be much more like a smoked pork shoulder or southern style pulled pork. Though it might sound complicated, you can prepare your own cured, aged and smoked ham, just by planning in advance.

Heating and Serving Ham

There are several ways to dress up prepared ham that will add flavor and improve the quality of the ham. Normally, when serving a precooked ham for a formal gathering, you push in a dozen or so whole cloves, top with pineapple slices, glaze with a nice mustard sauce and bake in your oven at 350 F (175 C) for a couple of hours, depending on the size. This will get the ham hot and add some flavor but if you really want to dress up the ham, try it on the grill or in the smoker, such as making honey glazed smoked ham.