The oldest surviving book of Latin prose from the first century BC includes instructions for preparing ham, so it’s safe to say humankind, and especially Westerners, have enjoyed ham for a very long time.
Ham, a type of pork, can be preserved and prepared in a variety of ways. Shopping for the best ham can be overwhelming since you’ll run into many labels and descriptions that may have you wishing you had a culinary dictionary handy. We’re going to demystify this delicious cut of meat by explaining the labels you’re likely to see and how you should go about preparing the ham you choose.
How Is Ham Made?
Hams are cut from the rear leg of a pig. The exception to this is picnic ham, which is really not ham at all. These “hams” are cut from the front leg. If a rear leg cut of meat were immediately cooked, it would simply taste like any other pork roast. You can buy fresh hams from butchers, but in most cases, hams go through a curing process and a baking or smoking process, which helps to give them their signature taste and texture before being sold.
Hams can be cured either through the use of salt — a process known as dry curing — or a liquid curing solution, or brine — known as wet curing. Dry-cured hams can also be aged for a richer flavor. Dry-cured hams can last a long time because they’ve been drained of the moisture that would otherwise breed bacteria. This also means dry-cured hams can be kept at room temperature.
Whether wet- or dry-cured, hams can be sold after they are cured, or they can be smoked or otherwise cooked. Smoking is especially common since it adds to the preservation and the flavor of the ham. Hams that are cured, or cured and smoked, are ready to eat. When you buy sliced ham at the deli counter, you may eat it cold, straight from the package. However, a ham you intend to serve as a dinner entree should be heated through, though it is pre-cooked.
Everything from the region where the pigs are farmed to the pigs’ diet to the way the ham is preserved and flavored influences how this famously delicious cut of meat will taste when you serve it up at your dinner table. Of course, the steps you take to prepare the ham will also influence how moist and flavorful the ham is, but it all starts with choosing a great quality ham.
Types of Hams and How They Are Cooked
When you’re ordering a ham or purchasing one at the supermarket, you’ll want to know what labels mean so you end up with a ham that fits your tastes. Let’s look at some basic distinctions used to label different types of hams and talk about how each of these types should be cooked to maximize the unique flavor and texture.
City Ham Vs. Country Ham
One set of terms you’ll likely run into when ordering ham off of a restaurant menu or purchasing one to prepare at home is “city ham” and “country ham.” The distinction between city and country ham is how the meat is cured.
Hams that are wet-cured are referred to as city hams. Most hams you’ll find at your local supermarket are city hams. In addition to being wet-cured, they are usually smoked. City hams are pre-cooked, meaning all you need to do to prepare the ham at home is gradually heat it through in an oven set to a low temperature. You can also slice off a piece of the ham and eat it cold or fry it on a skillet.
Country hams are dry-cured and may also be smoked. Country hams are not as common as city hams in the U.S., especially in more urban areas. Country hams can be eaten just as they are since they are preserved. They have a very salty taste and a drier texture compared to city hams. In other words, they more closely resemble preserved meats rather than the juicy ham you may picture for a holiday meal.
You can heat these hams to serve them like you would a city ham, but you first need to soak them for at least four hours and up to 24 hours to add moisture and remove some of the salt. You can then boil the ham to heat it, add your favorite glaze and finish it off in a hot oven.
Shank End Vs. Butt End Ham
One important distinction you’ll see when shopping for hams is that some hams are shank-end hams while others are butt-end hams. You can buy whole hams as well, but these cuts of meat can weigh 20 pounds or more. If you’re looking to serve a family rather than an army, you’ll likely want to choose a partial ham. Since partial hams are cut from a whole ham, you end up with two main halves of the whole to consider.
One half is known as the shank end. This is the end lower down the hog’s leg. Shank end hams are what you likely picture when you think of a Christmas or Easter ham. They’re pretty enough to be a centerpiece for a holiday dinner in addition to being the main course. However, the meat on a shank end ham tends to be fattier and less tender than the meat you’ll find in a butt end ham. The butt end is lean and is easier to carve since it only has one bone.
Whether you choose a whole ham, a shank end or a butt end, most people bake their ham in the oven or a roaster. The size of the ham will be the biggest determining factor in how long you should cook it. With hams that come fully cooked, you only want to heat it through without overcooking it. Partially cooked hams will need to spend longer in the oven.
Some cooks choose to score the outside of the ham in a diamond pattern and glaze it to make it more attractive and more flavorful. For a traditional look, try garnishing your ham with whole cloves or pineapple rings and maraschino cherries.
Boneless Ham Vs. Bone-In Ham
Another distinction you’ll see is between boneless and bone-in hams. A bone-in ham tends to be moist and have a nice, rich flavor that comes from the bone, but carving it can be a bit challenging since you have to work around the bone. Once you finish carving a bone-in ham, the bone can be used to flavor soup beans, collard greens and other Southern classics.
A boneless ham is made to be easier to carve. Rather than working around a bone, you can make clean passes through the ham to create uniform slices. The downside is that boneless hams are processed, meaning you don’t just lose the bone — you lose some of the ham’s rich flavor and texture. This is generally true of many boneless hams you find at the supermarket, but it should not be the case with quality boneless hams.
Another option to consider is a bone-removed ham. With a bone-removed ham, you still have the ease of carving that you get with a boneless ham, but you’ll see more of the delicious marbling throughout the ham that you would see with a bone-in ham. This third option is a great compromise for people who can’t decide between the traditional appeal of a bone-in ham and the convenience of a boneless ham.
Cooking times for bone-in, boneless and bone-removed hams are similar since the goal is simply to warm the ham. On hams you buy at the grocery store, the label should include a guide for how long to heat the ham. Typically, you want the oven on a low temperature so the ham doesn’t dry out — especially if you’re fixing a boneless ham.
A discussion of ham should also give some attention to ham hocks, also called shanks or sometimes pork knuckles. Though ham hocks are not actually part of a ham, they are taken from the portion of the leg just below where the ham stops, at the end of the shank. Essentially, this is a hog’s calf area. Ham hocks contain a lot of collagen, which breaks down as it cooks to turn the meat tender and delicious.
Ham hocks make an excellent base for flavoring soups and broths. You can also fix them as an entree through methods like braising, roasting or slow cooking. You can purchase ham hocks raw, cured or cured and smoked. As with cured or cured and smoked hams, these pre-cooked ham hocks are ready to go and only needed to be heated, but raw ham hocks should be cooked through to an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
Canadian bacon may not have the word “ham” in the name, but it has more in common with ham than it does bacon. The main difference between Canadian bacon and ham is that, rather than coming from the leg and rump, Canadian bacon mostly comes from the loin — the area behind the hog’s shoulder. It’s interesting to note that, while Americans call this breakfast favorite Canadian bacon, Canadians typically refer to it as “peameal bacon” or simply “back bacon.”
Unlike a standard pork loin, Canadian bacon is wet-cured and smoked, which adds to its ham-like taste and appearance. Like most hams, Canadian bacon typically comes pre-cooked and ready to eat. Since Canadian bacon is traditionally enjoyed with breakfast, a great method for preparing it is to cut slices and fry them in a skillet on the stove.
Specialty Varieties of Ham
Beyond the basic distinctions we looked at above, there are many different types of hams hailing from places all over the world and with specific textures and flavor profiles that make them unique. We’re going to cover some of the most common specialty types of ham, including American hams and European hams.
- Smithfield ham: Hams labeled as Virginia hams are simply country hams from Virginia, but Smithfield, VA hams are a specific kind. Smithfield ham is a legally regulated term for a country ham made in Smithfield from pigs who had peanuts in their diet. These hams, which have a deep red color and salty flavor, go through a specific curing and processing regimen, which includes being aged for at least six to 12 months.
- Hickory-smoked ham: The name says it all with a hickory-smoked ham. This label means the ham was cured and then hung to smoke over hickory chips, which impart a distinctive flavor. While this is the traditional method, some hams labeled as hickory-smoked may get the flavor from a liquid smoke rather than the traditional smoking method.
- Honey-cured ham: A honey-cured ham is cured using honey. The sweetening agent in the cure must consist primarily or entirely of honey for this label to be accurate. The honey used must be at least grade C in terms of quality. The honey flavors the ham, making honey-cured hams just as sweet as they sound.
- Sugar-cured ham: Another sweet ham you’ll find on the market is a sugar-cured ham. These hams use cane or beet sugar or both to sweeten the ham. Cane and/or beet sugar must be the primary agent for sweetening, but other sweeteners can also be added. Sugar-cured hams are great for people who love their ham to be sweet rather than salty.
- Black Forest ham: Black Forest ham, strictly speaking, is made in the Black Forest region of Germany. It is characterized by a blackened exterior and a flavor profile that comes from the herbs that are added to the cure. In the US, this ham is typically made stateside, but it mimics the appearance and flavor of a true Black Forest ham.
- Prosciutto: Prosciutto is an Italian ham that is popular in the U.S. as well. It is dry-cured, which means it doesn’t need to be cooked before serving. When served uncooked, it’s known as prosciutto crudo. It can be cooked, however, to add delicious, salty flavor to dishes. Cooked proscuitto is known as prosciutto cotto.
- Serrano ham: Serrano ham hails from Spain, where it is called Jamón serrano. It is dry-cured, so it’s well-preserved and is served in a manner similar to Proscuitto — thinly sliced. The main difference between Serrano ham and Proscuitto is that Serrano ham contains less fat and moisture, meaning it has a strong, concentrated flavor.
- Bayonne ham: Bayonne ham comes from France, and is a boneless, dry-cured ham that also resembles prosciutto. This ham is aged for six months before it achieves its signature flavor. The Bayonne Ham Council, which represents the pig farms, curing units and other involved in producing Bayonne ham, is aiming to export more Bayonne ham to the U.S.
Enjoy Delicious Hams From S. Clyde Weaver Smoked Meats & Cheese
If you want to keep things simple and avoid comparing hams at the supermarket, choose a ham from S. Clyde Weaver Smoked Meats & Cheeses. With a century in the business, we’ve created a solid reputation for excellent quality and tastes that remind you of holiday dinners at home. We source our products locally, and we ship them across the nation, so no matter where you are, you can enjoy a taste of Lancaster County.
When you order a ham from S. Clyde Weaver, you can be sure your family or dinner guests will be going for that second slice of tender, flavorful ham. Browse through our selection of smoked hams and bacon and place an order today.