Ham is one of the go-to dishes for big family celebrations and holidays in the U.S., and there are several varieties in addition to a typical glazed ham we find as the centerpiece on many American tables. From a French Bayonne to an Italian prosciutto to Canadian bacon, as well as Southern country-cured ham and urban-style, you don't need a special occasion to try one of the many different types of ham available. But first, it is important to understand the different ways ham can be sold.
Ham comes from a hog's hind legs, specifically from the middle of the shank bone and it is prepared and sold in a variety of ways. Hams are sold bone-in, partially boned, or boneless. Unless the ham is sold as fresh, the hams are cured, which can mean wet-cured—or brined—or dry-cured. Brine-cured ham is soaked in a liquid-salt mixture (sometimes with added flavors) before being smoked. Brine-cured is the most common variety of ham at standard grocery stores and can vary widely in quality. If the brine is inserted directly into the ham, it is considered an injected-cured ham. This method may also be combined with other curing techniques. Dry-cured ham is where the entire surface of the meat is thoroughly covered with salt and then stored until the salt permeates the meat, thereby preserving it.
Another distinction you will find is whether the ham is fully cooked, partially cooked, or uncooked. To be considered fully cooked, the ham needs to have been heated to an internal temperature of at least 148 F; partially cooked should reach at least 137 F. Uncooked and partially cooked hams need to be baked before serving while fully cooked hams just need to be heated. And aged ham is one that is heavily cured and smoked that has been hung to age from 1 to 7 years. They are covered in a mold which must be scraped and washed off prior to eating.
In addition to these labels, there are many varieties of hams, all with specific names, coming from several parts of the world.
A French ham hailing from Bearn or the Basque region, it is named after the southwestern France port city Bayonne. This boneless ham is salted and dry-cured for 6 months. These are raw, uncooked hams. Aficionados enjoy raw slices on buttered peasant bread.
Black Forest Ham
This ham gets its name from the area of Germany it was first produced. In Europe, the ham must come from the Black Forest region, but in the U.S. the name signifies the ham's exterior color and preparation method. The raw, boneless ham is salted and seasoned with juniper berries, coriander, pepper, and garlic, and then cured and cold smoked, usually using fir or pine as the wood of choice, where the outside turns almost black.
Boiled or Cooked Ham
This non-smoked ham is bland in flavor, as it is simply boiled or steamed. It is most often used for lunch meat.
This precooked smoked meat is made of a lean cut taken from the eye of the loin of the middle back of the pig (which is why it is also referred to as back bacon in some areas). It is much more akin to ham than to bacon.
Canned ham can consist of a whole piece of meat or bits and pieces pressed together into a form and then fused with a gelatin mixture.
This Italian cured ham, also called coppa and capicollo, is similar to prosciutto but is made from the pork shoulder or neck whereas prosciutto is made from the buttocks or thighs. The two types of ham can be used interchangeably.
The hogs used to make country-cured ham are generally fed on nuts and fruit to produce a more flavorful and tender meat. This ham must be cured, aged, and dried at least 70 days. Country hams are usually dry-cured in salt, then smoked over fragrant hardwoods, and aged at least 6 months. (Depending on the length of aging, the meat may be drier.) A mold will most likely form on the exterior, which is simply scraped and washed away. They commonly come from the Southern U.S. and are also known as country-style ham, and called "old hams" in Kentucky. Depending on the region the ham comes from will affect the flavors of the meat. Most country-cured hams are uncooked and need to be cooked using a special process.
A popular component of antipasto platters, this Italian cured ham is soaked in wine during aging. It is lean and rosy red, with a clean, delicate flavor.
This ham's name comes from an Old Northern French word "Gambe," for the hind leg of the pig, and is popular in Great Britain. It may or may not be smoked and must be cooked before eating.
Honey- or Maple-Cured Ham
Wet-cured, this type of ham uses honey or maple syrup as at least half of the sweetener in the curing mixture. In order to be considered honey- or maple-cured, there needs to be a sufficient amount of either ingredient so that it clearly comes through in the final flavor of the ham.
Belfast, Ireland, is famous for its pickled or brined hams, but what gives them their own unique flavor is the process of smoking over peat fires. Like country-cured hams, they must be soaked, scrubbed, simmered, and then baked before eating.
This luxury ham comes from Spain and is offered in 3 different grades. This type of ham, also known as jamón de pata Negra, is dry-cured for 2 years and results in a sweet and nutty taste. The higher the grade, the higher the price.
Meat from the upper part of the foreleg of the hog, including a portion of the shoulder, is considered a picnic ham. It is not a true ham, actually, but a less expensive substitute for regular ham, and less tender in texture. It is also referred to as picnic shoulder or pork shoulder and can be fresh or smoked; smoked picnic hams are very similar to traditional hams.
Prosciutto (Italian Ham)
The meat of prosciutto, which means "ham" in Italian, is seasoned, salt-cured, and air-dried. It is not smoked. The meat is pressed into a dense, firm texture. Prosciutto di Parma is true prosciutto from the Parma region of Italy. Other varieties are now made in the U.S.
Italian prosciuttos include prosciutto cotto (cooked) and prosciutto crudo (uncooked, but cured and ready to eat). Other types are named for the region in Italy in which they were made. Prosciutto is generally eaten as-is or added during the last cooking stages. Extended cooking of prosciutto toughens the meat.
Once made in Scotland, this term now refers to uncooked, boneless, mildly cured hams sold in casings.
This dry-cured Spanish ham is basically any other ham that is not made from black Iberian pigs, which produce Jamon Iberico. It is generally served thinly sliced but sometimes also diced.
A variety of country-cured ham made in Smithfield, Virginia, this ham goes through a very specific process. It is coated with salt, sodium nitrate, and sugar, refrigerated for 5 days, salted again, and refrigerated again for 1 day per pound of meat. It is then washed, refrigerated for another 2 weeks, smoked for 10 days, and then aged 6 to 12 months.
In order to be labeled a Smithfield, the ham must be cured in this specific manner within the city of Smithfield, VA. The meat is deep red in color, and dry with a pungent flavor. Considered a gourmet's choice, they are rather expensive and need to be cooked long and slow before eating.
Another Italian ham, speck is dry-cured in a similar manner to prosciutto and then lightly smoked. It is made from a deboned hind thigh and is offered as mass produced as well as speck alto Aldige, a PDO-protected variety from northern Italy.
Here, the meat is covered in a seasoned sweet brine, sometimes referred to as sugar-cured, where brown sugar or molasses is added to the cure mix.
Also known as city hams, this is the style used by commercial manufacturers to produce mass quantities, usually using an injection-curing method. The meat is less expensive because the processing is shorter and less complicated. The end result is invariably much blander in taste than country-style.
Made from pigs fed with acorns in the Westphalia forest of Germany, this ham is cured and then slowly smoked over a mixture of beechwood and juniper woods. The result is a very dark brown, dense ham with a light smoky flavor. It is considered one of the best and, as such, is on the expensive side. It's similar to Black Forest ham.
From England, this mild-flavored ham has delicate pink meat and must be cooked like country-cured ham before eating. It is traditionally served with Madeira sauce.