Ham generally refers to the hind legs of a
pig. Hams can be whole, with or without skin (rind), partially boned or
boned, rolled and tied into a neat, round shape. Ham from the front leg
(shoulder) is called picnic ham or butt. Hams are available from other
cuts of pork as well, such as loin. Ham hocks, or the lower trimmed
portions of each ham, are cured and smoked like whole hams. Why so many
varieties? Simply because there are hundreds of variations on curing and
smoking techniques. Just remember that there are but two basic ways of
curing - wet and dry curing.
Wet-Cured Ham - Most hams available
in stores are wet-cured. This type of ham is created by submerging the ham
in a salty brine solution or injecting the brine into the ham. Often,
sugar and seasonings are added and sometimes, nitrates are added to
improve color and help preserve the meat. In general, wet-cured hams are
milder and less salty than dry-cured hams. They are also moister and have
a finer texture. Most of these hams are fully cooked, but some are
partially cooked, so pay close attention to labels and cooking
instructions. Wet-cured hams have not been fully preserved and require
Dry-Cured Ham - In this broad
category, the ham is rubbed all over with salt and then left to cure.
Country hams, prosciutto, and Serrano hams are all dry-cured and have not
yet been cooked. The salt acts as a preservative and helps ward off
bacteria. Dry-cured hams often contain sugar and other seasonings to
balance the saltiness and contribute flavor. These hams are always salty
and the flavor is concentrated, while the texture is coarser and drier
than in wet-cured hams.
Smoked Ham - All of the most popular
American hams have been smoked. Hickory-smoked ham has always been an
American favorite, but you can also buy hams that have been smoked over
pecan, apple wood, maple, cherry, oak and other hardwoods. Some of the
lesser-quality smoked hams are not smoked at all but bathed in vaporized
smoke flavoring. You can buy whole, half or pieces of smoked ham. Most of
these will be labeled 'fully cooked' or 'ready to eat'.
Country Ham - The hogs used to make
country hams are usually raised on corn and then fed an expensive diet
that can include acorns, peaches and peanuts which affects the flavor of
the ham. All country hams are dry-cured, and most are smoked and
un-cooked. They are extremely salty and have been preserved. To reduce
saltiness, country hams must be soaked for at least 24 hours in cool
water, changing the water three or four times. Older hams, which are even
saltier, should soak for up to 48 hours. The ham is allowed to cool in the
water for about 2 hours. It can then be sliced and eaten, or baked and
Spiral-Cut Ham - These fully cooked,
wet-cured, smoked hams have been ingeniously sliced using a special spiral
slicing machine that cuts the ham in a continuous motion from top to
bottom. The result is a ham that retains its full shape, though the slices
can be simply removed. Simply heat them through in a 325oF
Supermarket and Deli Ham - These
fully cooked hams are usually brine-injected and quickly wet-cured. They
may be briefly smoked too, lending just a subtle smoke flavor. Deli ham is
usually sold boneless or semi-boneless, but look for it on the bone for
the best flavor.
Canned Ham - Ready-to-eat, canned
hams are always wet-cured but not always smoked. They require
refrigeration and can be stored at 40oF or colder for up to a
year. Canned hams are boneless, skinless and often made up of several hams
so that pieces will fill the can. In general, bake at 325oF for
about 20 minutes per pound, or until the internal temperature reaches 130oF
to 140oF on an instant-read thermometer.
Prosciutto - Generally, these salty
hams have been dry-cured and aged but not smoked or cooked. The curing
process kills any harmful bacteria, so they can be eaten without cooking.
This type of ham has also been pressed, so the texture is firm, making it
easy to cut wafer-thin slices.
Serrano and Iberico - Spain produces
two of the world's greatest cured hams. Serrano is the most popular, but
Iberico is considered the very best. Serrano ham is made from Spanish
white pigs, while Iberico ham comes from the wild, dark Iberico pig, which
is allowed to forage for wild acorns and herbs. Use these Spanish hams as
you would use prosciutto.
Tasso - This Cajun specialty is
cured, heavily spiced and smoked. Pieces of ham are usually taken from the
shoulder. Thus, tasso is sold in chunks rather than in whole hams. It is
most often chopped and used as a seasoning in gumbo, jambalaya, stuffing,
and other Louisiana regional specialties.