Ham 101: What to Know Before Buying a Ham

When I first started cooking ham, all the different kinds of hams, all the terms for hams, they were so confusing! It took awhile to sort out what curing is, and smoking, let alone fresh hams, green hams, country hams and even city hams. (Did you know that the number one ham is a city ham? Ever heard of one before? Me either.) Here’s my explanation, everything you might want to know about ham.

Ham 101 is published today along with my favorite way to cook a ham for holidays and parties, it's a Twice-Smoked Ham.


What is Ham? The Basic Cut, the Meat Itself

HAM – At the most basic level, a ‘ham’ refers to a specific cut of pork, not how it’s cured or cooked. A ham comes from the back thigh/rump of a pig so this means there are just two per animal. Imagine where the ‘hams’ are on your own body, it’s the same.

cuts of meat from a hog

WHOLE HAM – A whole ham will typically weigh 18 to 20 pounds and includes both the ‘butt’ end and the ‘shank’ end. The ‘butt end’ is the upper part of the ham, more ‘rump’ and thus more fatty. The ‘shank end’ is the lower end, more leg and less fatty. The shank end has just one bone so is easier to slice. When I cooked half a ham recently, a nine-pound bone-in, shank-end ham yielded nearly eight pounds of cooked ham meat. Some hams will still have a thick layer of fat on the exterior (this is what gets scored in diamond shapes for an attractive look once the ham is baked and reaches the table); some producers leave a thin layer of fat, there’s still enough for scoring.

PICNIC HAM – Some times the front shoulders of a hog are smoked and called ‘picnic hams’ but they’re not really ham cuts, there are pork shoulders cured in ham fashion.

HAM STEAKS – Ham steaks are slices of a cured ham, sold pre-sliced for easy cooking.

BREAKFAST HAM – A breakfast ham is a ham steak, just the most tender center section.

HAM HOCK – The hock is the pig’s ankle, the slightly meaty section above the feet (called trotters) and the hams (in the back legs) and the picnic hams (in the front legs). A ham hock is usually sold fully cooked.


What Is a Fresh Ham? A Cured Ham? A Smoked Ham?

FRESH HAM or GREEN HAM – This is an uncured and uncooked ham. I’ve never seen a fresh ham at the grocery store but when you buy a whole hog for the freezer, you’ll get two fresh hams. If you purchase a fresh ham, it can be roasted/baked straight off; it can be cured at home and then baked (see Mark Bittman’s recent recipe in the New York Times); it can be smoked at home and then roasted/baked. I once made the mistake of making pulled pork with a fresh ham: oops, not good, it’s too lean a cut.

Smoked ham, scored and stuck with cloves

CURED HAM – A cured ham has been flavored with salt, sugar and other flavorings. It’s these flavors which turn the piece of flesh from the hind quarters of a pig into the tasty food we call ham. (We really do need two words, don’t we?) Many foods are cured, not just hams, some times for food-preservation and some times for food-flavoring. Some familiar forms of cured food are corned beef, ham, bacon, sausages like salami and pepperoni, pickled herring, sauerkraut, tofu, even olives.

CURED HAM (WET) – Wet-cured hams are soaked in a brine of salt, sugar and other flavorings. A wet-cure ham may also be smoked. The pork flavor really comes through, without the saltiness of a traditional country ham. It pays to ask about how the ham is cured – some hams are wet-cured with injections of salt-sugar-smoke flavoring, not actually brined and then smoked.

CITY HAM – A city ham is perhaps the most typical ham in the U.S. A city ham is soaked or injected with a brine of salt, sugar and flavorings and then lightly smoked or boiled. Look for a city ham in the refrigerated case at the supermarket, likely near the bacon, likely wrapped in plastic. It will be marked ‘ready to cook’, ‘partially cooked’ or ‘ready to serve’. Look for one that’s labeled ‘ham in natural juices’. I think of a city ham as an every day ham – readily available, relatively inexpensive.

CURED HAM (DRY) – The dry method of curing ham uses salt, not liquid, for adding flavor to a ham. The salt pulls out moisture and concentrates the meat flavor. It’s often a delicacy, sold at specialty shops and butchers – think Italian prosciutto, Spanish Serrano ham and German Black Forest ham.

COUNTRY HAM – A country ham is dry-cured with salt, some times smoked, and then aged. A traditional country ham salty, so salty that it’s either eaten in thin-thin slices on biscuits, say, or soaked and rinsed for 12 to 24 hours before baking. But country hams can also be cured with less salt and thus require none of the soaking and rinsing. Country hams are a traditional food in the American South and the curing process dates back to the days before preservation. (More about the tradition of country hams.)

VIRGINIA HAM – A Virginia ham is a country ham.

SMOKED HAM – Smoking is another form of curing. Before it's smoked, a ham is first salt-cured or brined to control the development of bacteria during smoking. It then spends many hours, days even, in a smokehouse to allow the essence of hickory or maple smoke to slowly infuse the meat. The meat doesn't 'burn up' because the smoking temperature low, below 100F, that's why this slow process is called 'cold-smoking'.

AGING – Many good hams are cured and smoked, then allowed to age for weeks, months, even years. As the hams 'age', the flavors concentrate and develop.


Which Is Better, a Bone-In Ham or a Boneless Ham?

BONELESS HAM – A boneless ham is easier to slice. But too often, boneless hams aren’t really whole hams, they’re pieces of ham jelled together and canned – not good. That said, some very good hams from small producers have had their bones removed and are specially packaged for easy serving and slicing.

Bone-in ham

BONE-IN HAM – Just like chicken, a bone-in ham has more flavor because the bone itself imparts flavor into the meat. Plus, you definitely want the bone for later, to make soup or ham stock or my favorite, Ham & Beans (recipe coming soon!)


Specialty Hams & Other Kinds of Hams

AIR-DRIED HAM – When I hiked in Switzerland in 2000, I learned to love the air-dried meats, especially the air-dried ham. This meat is actually raw and can’t be sold in the U.S.

BLACK FOREST HAM – Germany's traditional Black Forest ham is coated in beef blood (yes, you read that right) before smoking, that's what creates the thin black coating.

HONEY-BAKED HAM – There’s the Honey-Baked Ham the brand, sold at high prices in stores across the U.S. Someday I’ll tell you the story of the time I ordered a Honey-Baked Ham for a weekend gathering hosted by my parents – and ended up with two hams, delivered a day apart, both with 100-mile taxi rides. It’s a hoot. The bottom line here is that I got great service ordering a Honey-Baked Ham. I’ve also stood in line for hours, waiting to pick up a ham. There’s a location near my house now, before Christmas and Easter, traffic backs up so much that the store has to hire traffic directors.

SMITHFIELD HAM – The original Smithfield country hams had a distinctive flavor from pigs finished on peanuts. Whether peanuts are still used to flavor the meat in Smithfield hams is unclear. The website makes no mention of peanuts. An order taker for phone orders didn’t know and referred me to the consumer affairs office. The consumer affairs office passed me around a couple of times, then someone named Bonnie said that their hogs are fed an “all-grain” diet. When I pressed, she said they are fed a special grain diet that includes soy, corn and peanuts. Since none of these are grains, I’m guessing peanuts are no longer in the equation but would be happy to learn otherwise.

SPIRAL-CUT HAM – Spiral slicing is all the rage in hams, it’s definitely an impressive way to serve ham to a lot of people, thin-sliced in spirals.

DELI HAM – Deli ham is a generic term for ham specially formed into loaves for thin, even slicing. The ham will have been cured and often smoked.

CANNED HAM – This is boneless ham meat crammed into a can. Lovely.


More Questions About Ham

CAN HAM BE FROZEN? To my taste, ham does not freeze well. It ‘can’ be frozen but after thawing, seems just too wet and soggy. When I do freeze ham, I use it in small quantities in soup, etc, versus slicing for sandwiches or adding to salads.

IS a CURED HAM ALREADY COOKED? Usually but not always. Check the package or ask the butcher.

IS A SMOKED HAM ALREADY COOKED? Yes.

HOW LONG DOES A SMOKED HAM LAST? When I first bought a smoked ham, I had the idea that because it was smoked and already cooked, it would last a few weeks in the refrigerator. WRONG. It was already smoked for flavoring and cooked at the same time but it was not preserved. A smoked ham should be treated like any fresh meat, it should be cooked within a day or two of purchase; after cooking, the leftovers should be eaten within a few days.


Finding a Local Ham

SUPERMARKET HAMS vs HAMS from SMALL LOCAL PRODUCERS & SMOKEHOUSES If there’s ever a time to shop around for good meat, it’s for ham, especially because ham is often the star of the holiday table at Easter, Christmas and big buffet parties. That said, a supermarket may well carry a locally cured ham and many local ham producers only sell wholesale to grocers. So start by asking a butcher, especially an old-style knowledgeable butcher in a small grocery, rather than the plastic wrappers employed by large supermarkets.

ST LOUIS HAM LOVERS For the best ham in St. Louis, look for a Miller ham, see Miller Ham for a list of local retail stores. I buy Miller hams at Freddie's Market in Webster Groves, at the corner of Big Bend and Rock Hill. During peak ham periods, be sure to order in advance. Be prepared for sticker shock, for once on the LOW end.



MISSOURI HAM LOVERS Two local producers of ham in Missouri are Burger's Smokehouse in California (that would be California, Missouri, people) and Baumgartner's Boone County Ham in Rocheport, Missouri.

FINDING A LOCAL HAM The more I research ham, the more I get the idea that there may well be dozens, even hundreds, of quality small ham producers like that manage to stay well under the consumer radar, despite their skill and passion for developing fine hams over many decades. But it might take some poking around to find one nearby. Local Harvest is a start, the Country Ham Association another. You might also check the local message boards on ChowHound, or even post your own question. Good luck, it's worth the search!

RECOMMEND A LOCAL HAM PRODUCER If you know of a good producer of local hams in your own area, or have another idea about finding one, please do add your information in the comments so that others may benefit.


More Ham Resources

Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn

Pig Perfect: Encounters with Remarkable Swine and Some Great Ways to Cook Them by Peter Kaminsky


Kitchen Parade is written by second-generation food columnist Alanna Kellogg and features fresh, seasonal dishes for every-day healthful eating and occasional indulgences. Do you have a favorite recipe that other Kitchen Parade readers might like? Just send me a quick e-mail via recipes@kitchen-parade.com. How to print a Kitchen Parade recipe. If you like Kitchen Parade, you're sure to like my food blog about vegetable recipes, too, A Veggie Venture. Become a Kitchen Parade fan on Facebook!





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Hi Alanna, Your website is very informative, much more so than most! The only experience that I have had and would add is that spiral ham, from the grocer, is normally dry, compared to an unsliced ham. Thanks for sharing your "ham knowledge".
Kindest regards,
Marcia Wessels
 
Thank you for posting all this! I was so confused with all the hams out there this article saved me today!! Lol
 
I purchased a 9 lb. half ham that says that it is Hickory smoked but it also says that it is uncooked.
Is this possible?

Dave
 
Dave ~ Aiiii, my experience says "yes" but in your case, I'd tend to believe whoever smoked and packaged the ham. If it were me, I'd get on the phone with them to investigate! Good luck, I'd love to know what you learn.
 
Excellent information. Enjoyed all you explained & written clearly. However, I thought you might want to change anything which is incorrect. I checked 3 other sources to verify (before writing comment) that your information on the shank vs. butt is incorrect. The butt is more lean and the shank has more fat. (see Food Lab and "Cook's" manuf./producer of hams, and bellaonline.) I looked at several Coop. Extension Serv. sites and they didn't address it. Would like to have higher quality "educational/ authoritative" sites to check but no more time to spend on this. Hope this feedback is helpful to you.
 
Thanks for your help! Very informative and easy to understand. Good thing I have one day to cook my ham for Thanksgiving!! I'm glad I read this while my hubby was at the store picking up the ham.
 
Great article. Thanks for that. I agree that the best ham you can get in the St. Louis area is a Miller ham. Their webpage no longer lists the locations where you can get them but they are redesigning their webpage. I live in Edwardsville, Il and the three places that I know you can buy them is at Bernhardts Meat in Troy, IL, also at SuperValu in Troy, Il and at Joe's Market Basket grocery store in Edwardsville, Il. If you want a good ham, that's the one to buy. Believe me, its worth a few more bucks for a Miller than what you get in most grocery stores.
 
So great to find friendly advice and info! Many thanks! and Merry Thanksgiving!
 
Where's the best place to buy an uncooked unsmoked uncured boneless fresh ham please, Chesterfield area St Louis. Thanks in advance
 

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Thank you for taking a moment to write! I read each and every comment, for each and every recipe. If you have a specific question, it's nearly always answered quick-quick. But I also love hearing your reactions, your curiosity, even your concerns! When you've made a recipe, I especially love to know how it turned out, what variations you made, what you'll do differently the next time. ~ Alanna