All About Ham

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If you're considering cooking a ham for a holiday meal, it can get confusing as to what sort of ham you should buy. There is a variety of hams sold in markets, and the quality varies, depending on how it's been prepared and cooked.

Types of Ham

Ham is the raw rear leg (rump to shank) of a hog, which is preserved by smoking dry-curing or wet-curing. Ham is globally produced with emphasis on cultural specialties, for example, prosciutto, speck or jamon serrano. Ham curing can be 8 months to 2 years. A non-cured ham is fresh ham.

There are two types of ham commonly sold in the United States: city ham and country ham.

A city ham has been either immersed or injected with a brine composed of water, salt, phosphates, nitrites and, sometimes, sugar. (Nitrites add color and flavor.) Most of the hams sold in supermarkets have been injected with the brine solution, which increases the ham's weight and inhibits bacteria growth. The ham is then boiled or smoked and packaged for retail.

country ham has been dry-cured with salt and nitrates and aged for several months and up to 3 years, depending on weight and fat content. They are not always smoked, although a Virginia ham or Smithfield ham, by definition, is smoked and aged for no less than 6 months.(A true Smithfield ham is from hogs that were peanut-fed.) The meat of a country ham is dryer in texture and considerably more red in color and saltier than city ham. Dry curing leeches the moisture out of the ham and reduces its weight by nearly 20 percent.

Water Additives

The USDA is very strict about how a ham must be labeled to accurately market what the ham is. When you're shopping for a ham, carefully read the label to avoid buying a ham (or ham product) with an excessive percentage of water added. As a general rule, the more water that is added, the less flavor the ham with have. Here are the USDA definitions for how ham is labeled:

  • Boiled Ham: Boneless and fully cooked in water and processed in various shapes in a can or casing. 
  • Ham: Cured leg of pork containing no less than 20.5-percent of protein. Added water is permitted, due to the curing process, but must be listed in order of predominance in the ingredients.
  • Ham With Natural Juices: No less than 18.5-percent protein with 7 or 8 percent added water. Boneless varieties are tightly pressed and reconfigured into oval shapes.
  • Ham -- Water Added: 17-percent protein with 10 percent water added by weight, which means that the water is included in the ham's total weight.
  • Ham and Water Product: Can contain any amount of added water and additives, the percentage of which must be stated on labeling for any canned ham with less than 17-percent protein. 

Ham Terminology

Hams may be sold as whole (serves up to 20 people), which includes the butt (upper part of the leg) and shank (the ankle), or as an individual butt half (serves 12 people) or a shank half (serves 10 to 12 people). The butt is more difficult to carve, but its meat is more tender and flavorful than the shank.

Hams can be bone-in (the bone adds substantially more flavor to the meat), semi-boneless (the hip bone has been removed), which makes the ham easier to carve and boneless. Take care in choosing a boneless ham, as the chunks of meat from the boning process can be pressed together and reformed into a cylindrical shape.

The USDA defines certain ham products as follows:

  • Hickory-Smoked: A cured ham that has been smoked hanging over burning hickory chips in a smokehouse. However, smoking by liquid hickory smoke and heat is permitted.
  • Honey-Cured: The honey must be grade C or above or contain 80-percent solids. Honey can be the only sweetening agent or combined with less than 50-percent of another sweetening agent. Honey can also be used to primarily flavor and color the ham product.
  • Sugar-Cured: Sweetened with cane or beet sugar or a combination with another sweetening agent that is less than 50-percent of the amount of sugar used. The ham can also be labeled sugar-cured if the sugar is enough to flavor or color the ham.
  • Fully Cooked: The ham has been fully cooked in the establishment where it was processed. It can be eaten out of the package or reheated to 145°F. It is also labeled as "ready to eat" and "eat and serve".
  • Cook Before Eating: The ham has not been cooked or heat-treated in a processing plant and needs to be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F before eating.