All 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. 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 nitrite, sodium nitrate, sodium erythorbate, sodium phosphate, potassium chloride, water and/or flavorings. The ham is then cooked to an internal temperature of 150 degrees F. The combination of the chemical brine and the cooking will kill off bacteria and make a 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 5 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 high price. Aging is done at about 75 degrees F to 95 degrees F (25 to 35 degrees C), at a humidity level of 55%-65% 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 smoking is the proper way to smoke a ham. Cold smoking is done at temperatures well under 100 degrees F (35 degrees C) but more likely around 60 degrees F (15 degrees 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 Smithfield Ham, which can sell for $7 to $15 a pound 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 1 to 2 months, smoke for a week, and then let age for another 6 months. See why they cost so much?
So you can't put a fresh ham in your smoker and have it for dinner that night? Sure you can, but 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. Some of the links on the right can give you step by step instructions to curing a ham. If you prefer to hot smoke your ham, use the instructions for pulled pork.
So, what if you don't want to go through all of this? There are several ways to dress up a prepared ham that will add flavor and improve the quality of the ham. Normally, when serving a precooked ham for a formal gathering, we 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 degrees F (175 degrees C) for a couple of hours, depending on the size. Well, 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. For some ideas try either Honey Glazed Smoked Ham or Maple-Mustard Ham.