What is Ham?

Ham is a cut of meat from the thigh of the hind leg of the pig. Ham can be wet-cured in brine or dry-cured-and-smoked, cooked, or country style. True ham must come from the hind leg of the pig. Ham from the foreleg of the pig is not a true ham.

Bone-in-Ham Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Wet Cured Ham

Most hams are wet cured in brine. This means that the pork hind leg is injected with a solution of water, salt, sugar, and sodium nitrite, and the process takes a few to several days. After that they may be smoked or not. Wet cured hams are also brought to a temperature of up up to about 140°F/60°C to kill the trichina parasite. They have a short shelf  life so a attention should be paid to “sell by date.” They have to be stored in the fridge and must be cooked before eating.

Traditional curing involved the submerging of the pork hind leg in the solution of water, salt, sugar and sodium nitrate for a few to several days.

Dry Cured Ham

Some hams are dry-cured. This means that the meat is rubbed or covered with a mixture of salt, sugar, sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite, and seasonings, and left for a few to several months depending on the type of ham being cured . The dry curing process draws out most moisture and intensifies the colour and flavour of the meat. Dry cured hams may also be called country hams and may be smoked or not.

What is Fully Cooked Ham?

Most hams in the grocery store are labelled ‘fully cooked’. This means that they are cooked to high enough internal temperatures to make them safe to eat. It’s important to read the label as it will always indicate whether the ham requires cooking, heating, or not. Fully cooked, large portions of ham are usually  heated through, in the oven, before serving.

Ready to eat ham

Hams can be ready-to-eat or not. Ready-to-eat hams include dry-cured and salted hams like prosciutto and cooked boneless hams, that can be eaten straight out of the package.

Types of ham

  • Bone in ham: contain the shank bone and are available whole or in sections. If sectioned, then the top half (rump half) is meatier and the bottom half (shank portion) tapers at the end and has less meat.
  • Semi-boneless ham:: Semi-boneless ham, has the shank bone removed, leaving the round leg bone, intact.
  • Boneless ham: have all the bones removed and are either rolled or moulded, and packed in a casing.
  • Canned Ham: This is the brine-cured boneless ham pieces that have been moulded, vacuum sealed, and fully cooked. Many have gelatin added to help absorb the natural juices of the ham. The ham is steam cooked in the can. (Red the label on your product).
  • Country Ham: a ham that is dry-cured with salt before smoking.
  • Picnic Ham: this is not a true ham because it comes from the shoulder which is technically the fore leg, near the shoulder blade, and not the hind leg..

Source: (The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition).

Classifying Ham by Protein or Fat Percentage

The curing solution can add greatly to the weight of the ham, thus reducing the amount of protein by weight. The USDA has categorized ham in the following ways:

  • Products labelled ham, have no added water and are at a least 20.5% protein, by weight.
  • products labelled Ham with natural juices have at least 18.5% protein by weight.
  • Products labelled “Ham-added water” have at least 17% protein, protein by weight.
  • Products labelled ‘Ham and water product’ can contain any amount of water , but must state the percentage of the added ingredients on the label.
  • Lean ham must contain no more than 10% fat by weight;
  • Extra lean ham have no more than 5% fat by weight.

Source: (The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition).

True ham is pork hind leg that has been cured and sometimes, smoked.

Recommended Reading

  1. Country, cured, fresh or smoked ham, what is the difference?
  2. Cooking Wet Cured Hams


Author: Liz

I love everything food: eating, cooking, baking and travelling. I also love photography and nature.

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