Ham is one of the go-to dishes for big family celebrations and holidays, and there are a number of varieties that are cured, smoked, and aged for different flavors and textures.
What is Ham?
All types of ham start out as a roast cut from the hind leg of a hog. This is called a fresh ham. Before it's prepared, it is no different than any other pork roast. To become ham, the pork is aged, cured, smoked, and/or cooked.
Types of Ham
Hams are sold according to a few different criteria, all of which will help you when selecting one from the store:
- Cut: Hams are sold bone-in, partially boned, or boneless. The shank end of the ham is typically fattier while the butt end is leaner and easier to slice.
- Cure: Unless the ham is sold as fresh, the hams are cured, which can mean wet-cured (brined) or dry-cured. Brine-cured ham is soaked in a liquid-salt mixture before being smoked and is the most common variety of ham. 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.
- Cook: 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.
- Smoke: Smoked hams are typically cold smoked at under 100 F for days or even weeks.
- Age: Some hams are aged for deeper flavor, meaning they are heavily cured, smoked, and hung to age from one to seven years. They are covered in a mold which must be scraped and washed off prior to eating. These aged hams have a strong, developed flavor and tend to be expensive.
Styles of Ham
A wide variety of specific styles of ham are available for purchase. Choose a ham that suits your tastes and meal.
A salty boneless French ham, it is named after the southwestern France port city Bayonne. This boneless ham is salted and dry-cured for six months. Aficionados enjoy slices on buttered peasant bread.
Black Forest Ham
This ham gets its name from the area of Germany where it was first produced as well as its blackened exterior. The boneless ham is salted and seasoned with juniper berries, coriander, pepper, and garlic before being cured and cold smoked.
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 pre-cooked smoked meat is made of a lean cut taken from the loin rather than the leg or rump. Canadian bacon is much more akin to ham than to bacon and is traditionally skillet-fried and served at breakfast.
Also called capocollo, coppa, or capicola, this Italian cured ham is similar to prosciutto but is made from the pork shoulder or neck whereas prosciutto is made from the buttocks or thighs.
Country ham is popular in the southern United States and must be cured, aged, and dried at least 70 days. They are usually dry-cured in salt, smoked over fragrant hardwoods, and aged at least six months. Most country-cured hams are uncooked and need to be cooked.
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 Ham
Wet-cured, this type of ham uses honey or maple syrup as at least half of the sweetener in the curing mixture. These sweet-savory hams are frequently pre-cooked and only require reheating.
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. They must be soaked, scrubbed, simmered, and then baked before eating.
This luxury ham comes from Spain and is offered in three different grades. Also known as jamón de pata negra, it is dry-cured for two years, resulting 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 technically speaking and is a less expensive and less tender than regular ham. It can be fresh or smoked.
Prosciutto (Italian Ham)
Prosciutto, which means "ham" in Italian, is seasoned, salt-cured, air-dried, and pressed to form a dense, firm texture. It is not smoked. Pricey Prosciutto di Parma is true prosciutto from the Parma region of Italy. Prosciutto is generally eaten as-is or added at the end of cooking.
Once made in Scotland, this term now refers to uncooked, boneless, mildly cured hams sold in casings.
This dry-cured Spanish ham is served thinly sliced similar to prosciutto. Serrano ham has a strong, concentrated flavor.
In order to be labeled a Smithfield, this specially aged country ham must be cured in this specific manner within the city of Smithfield, VA. The meat is deep red in color and salty with a pungent flavor. Considered a gourmet's choice, they are 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 available mass-produced or as a specialty item like speck alto Aldige, a PDO-protected variety from northern Italy.
Made from pigs fed with acorns in the Westphalia forest of Germany, this prized 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.
From England, this mild-flavored type of ham has delicate pink meat and must be cooked like country-cured ham before eating. It is traditionally served with Madeira sauce.