Ham is a favorite meat for everything from family holiday celebrations to store-bought slices for simple sandwiches. But what is ham? And what are the many ways in which it can be prepared?
What Is Ham?
Ham, also known as fresh ham, is the hind leg of a hog. It can be simply roasted, bone in or out, like most other cuts of meat. But it can also be pre-cured and cooked in many different ways to make it a prepared ham. What kind of hog is used, what sort of curing or cooking process it undergoes, and what you do to it after that, will determine what winds up on the plate before you.
How to Cook Ham
A fresh ham can be cooked (usually slow roasted) just like any other cut of meat, assuming you have a large enough pan and oven to hold it. But ham can—and usually does—undergo an initial precooking or curing process, which significantly affects how it tastes. The primary ways of preparing a ham are curing, aging, and smoking.
Cured ham is made by injecting a fresh ham with a brine 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 kills bacteria and turns a fresh ham into a cured one. This is the type of ham you find in most supermarkets and delis, often referred to as baked ham.
Aged ham does not necessarily require a brine or smoke but usually does involve extensive salting and seasoning. The ham is hung in special well-ventilated rooms with precise temperature and humidity controls for one to five years. During this time a hard crust of mold develops, which prevents the meat from spoiling and helps it develop distinctive and appealing flavors throughout the ham. After the aging period is complete, the mold is completely scraped off, and the ham is well washed and dried before packing. Hams of this variety, such as American "country ham," Italian prosciutto di Parma, or Spanish jamón serrano, are quite expensive and limited in availability.
Cold-smoked ham is made by smoking the ham at around 60 F (15 C), which 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 requires salt curing (typically in a brine) to keep the bacteria under control throughout the curing process. When smoking a ham, the smoke usually comes from wood or wood chips, and the type of wood used also makes a notable difference. Mesquite and hickory, for example, are commonly used woods for smoking ham, as are woods from nut trees or fruit trees. The type of wood used contributes an additional subtle flavor component to the ham.
Many hams are prepared using a combination of these processes.
Cured and smoked hams are often finished by heating with a glaze or serving with a sauce, or other treatment. Salted ham that is aged for a year or more, however, is usually simply sliced thin and eaten with complementary accompaniments, such as melon, chunks of cheese, or toasted bread. Such a ham has already lost much of its moisture in the salting and aging process, and heating it would dry it out and compromise its complex flavor.
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What Does Ham Taste Like?
The flavor of ham varies greatly according to its preparation method. However, all hams share a few common characteristics.
Coming from the large round muscles of the hind leg, all ham, whether oven roasted, smoked, or aged and sliced paper thin, has a meaty denseness and a fleshy sensation on the palate. Whatever the preparation, ham—even salted or smoked ham—always seems to have an underlying sweetness. And it is the perfect partner for many additional flavor accents, gracefully taking on smoke, salt, spicy mustard, brown sugar, even canned pineapple and cloves, without losing its inherently rich porcine flavor.
Fresh Ham vs. Prepared Ham
Comparing a fresh and a prepared ham offers a brilliant snapshot of the tremendous versatility of a leg of pork. Much fattier and moister than pork loin, you can put a fresh ham sprinkled with some herbs and seasoning in a low-temperature oven and forget about it for nine or 10 hours, until the enticing aroma compels you to take a peek. You open the oven door to find a beautiful golden brown, crisp package, which also functions as a sweatbox to insulate and moisten the meat inside, which can be peeled off with your fingers and will melt in your mouth. One of the preparation methods—brine, smoke, salt, and/or age—takes these basic qualities in a completely different direction, but the essence of the ham is still there, perhaps even more thoroughly realized but in a completely different guise.
There are numerous varieties of ham, and many of them represent significant markers of a country's culinary identity. Here are some examples:
- Prosciutto di Parma, prosciutto San Daniele, and the fabulous culatello of Italy, to name only a few.
- Hand-sliced shards of jamón Iberico of Spain, made from the black-footed (papta negra) pig, especially the fantastic Bellota version from select animals that are fed a diet of chestnuts.
- Bayonne ham from southwestern France.
- Black Forest and Westphalian ham from Germany.
- Country ham from the southern United States.
There is a vast array of ways to cook, finish, and serve a whole ham and ways to use ham as an ingredient in other preparations.
Where to Buy Ham
A basic selection of ham can be found in the deli section of most any grocery store. Charcuterie and specialized gourmet food shops will likely have a better selection of high-end ham. You can also consult online venues specializing in food products from particular countries and even purchase a country ham directly from the producer's website.
A fresh ham should be cooked within a few days of purchasing or tightly wrapped in plastic and frozen. Sliced ham should ideally be used within three to four days. Larger pieces of baked ham can be tightly wrapped and stored in the refrigerator for seven to 10 days until ready to use. If you happen to get a whole aged ham, it can be kept in the fridge with the cut end carefully plastic wrapped for four to six weeks.