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 a city ham 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.

Ham 101: What to Know Before Buying a Ham ♥ KitchenParade.com.

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 at the top of your own legs, it’s the same.

Ham 101: What to Know Before Buying a Ham ♥ KitchenParade.com.

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 unless you request otherwise. 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.

Twice-Smoked Ham for Ham 101 ♥ KitchenParade.com, 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 in 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 a ham is smoked, it 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, not appetizing. That said, some very good hams from small producers have had their bones removed and are specially packaged for easy serving and slicing – in other words, good eats.

Bone-In Ham for Ham 101 ♥ KitchenParade.com.

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 for our family favorite, Ham & Beans!

Specialty Hams & Other Kinds of Hams

JAMÓN IBÉRICO – An Iberian ham is a special ham from Spain or Portugal, particular breeds, particular conditions, particular feed, particular curing – all those particularities add up to super expensive! We tried a few pricey slivers at a Spanish restaurant in rural Colorado once, amazing ham! An American family business in Iowa now cures Iberian hams, see La Quercia.

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. But oh! it's wonderful!

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 Honey-Baked spiral 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. 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 scraps crammed into a can. Lovely. #Not.

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, as if the meat has dissolved a bit. When I do freeze ham, I use it in small quantities in soup, etc, versus slicing for sandwiches or adding to salads.

Good News! Much to my surprise, frozen ham makes excellent Ham Salad!

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


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.

Miller Ham for Ham 101 ♥ KitchenParade.com.

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. This is a fascinating cookbook for anyone who wants to explore curing your own meats. I find it daunting but hey, you never know.

Pig Perfect: Encounters with Remarkable Swine and Some Great Ways to Cook Them by Peter Kaminsky. I once had the privilege of spending a day with Peter. Afterward I wrote an essay called The Heartbeat of Iowa. Peter's also the reason my husband and I cooked a whole buffalo three times in three years. I wrote about the first time when sharing my recipe for Homemade Hot Chocolate Mix, good for a crowd or a small batch for home. But cooking whole bison? That's another story for another day. :-)

Cooking Fresh Pork?

Have you ever cooked a pork roast or pork chops and the center stays pink? That's bad, right? Or is it?

The answer is, it depends. Check out Should Cooked Pork Be Pink?.

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Ham 101: What to Know Before Buying a Ham, a detailed guide ♥ KitchenParade.com. Easter, anyone?

Favorite Ham Recipes from My Kitchen

~ ham recipes ~
Twice-Smoked Ham ♥ KitchenParade.com, how and why to smoke a smoked ham a second time for Easter, Christmas and holiday hams.
  • THE RECIPE Twice-Smoked Ham How & why to smoke a smoked ham a second time.
  • DON'T FORGET Spicy Raisin Sauce for Ham My grandmother's recipe, always-always served with the Easter ham, the Christmas ham, the Sunday ham.

Spicy Raisin Sauce for Ham ♥ KitchenParade.com, my grandmother's recipe, a real classic. Serve it warm with ham at Easter and Christmas or for an easy weeknight supper, a ham steak.

Ham & Beans ♥ KitchenParade.com, an easy, budget-friendly one-pot supper that makes best use of a leftover ham bone. High Protein. Weight Watchers Friendly.

Kitchen Parade is written by second-generation food columnist Alanna Kellogg and features fresh, seasonal dishes for every-day healthful eating and occasional indulgences. Quick Suppers are Kitchen Parade favorites and feature recipes easy on the budget, the clock, the waistline and the dishwasher. Do you have a favorite recipe that other Kitchen Parade readers might like? Just send me a quick e-mail, you'll find my current address in the FAQs. How to print a Kitchen Parade recipe. Never miss a recipe! If you like this recipe, sign up for a free e-mail subscription. If you like Kitchen Parade, for more scratch cooking recipes using whole, healthful ingredients, you're sure to like my food blog about vegetable recipes, too, A Veggie Venture. If you make this recipe, I'd love to know your results! Just leave a comment below.

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Alanna Kellogg
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A Veggie Venture is home of "veggie evangelist" Alanna Kellogg and the famous asparagus-to-zucchini Alphabet of Vegetables.


  1. Anonymous11/17/2012

    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

  2. Thank you for posting all this! I was so confused with all the hams out there this article saved me today!! Lol

  3. 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?


  4. 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.

  5. Anonymous11/20/2013

    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.

  6. 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.

  7. Anonymous12/29/2013

    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.

  8. Bethany11/19/2014

    So great to find friendly advice and info! Many thanks! and Merry Thanksgiving!

  9. Where's the best place to buy an uncooked unsmoked uncured boneless fresh ham please, Chesterfield area St Louis. Thanks in advance

  10. Gosh, my post disappeared. I came to your site to find out what kind of ham I should use to make pulled pork for 50 people. I now know not to use fresh! I am trying to keep the cost down and I assume serving pulled pork is less expensive than whole hams. Thank you for a great explanation of hams.

  11. Wow! This is such a great article! Thank you very much for putting the time and effort in creating such succinct, informative piece. Cooking large meats is daunting and it becomes much easier when you understand the terminology and types. Thank you! I'll be reading many more of your articles.

  12. Plath's meats in Rogers city, Michigan is an excellent local source for meats.

  13. Anonymous3/28/2016

    "Cook's" ham is the best ham I've found. I prefer the butt portion over the shank. Less bone and more meat.

  14. Thanks for the great page! I had lots of questions and you answered them all.

  15. Up until about 3 or 4 years ago I always found meaty ham hocks(probably the cut above the hock rather than below)at grocery stores. Now I can't find them. The ones now have no meat. I cooked one yesterday..20oz gristle fat skin and bone 4 oz of meat?? What?? Guess I will have to track down a butcher because I like meat in my beans or pea soup or what ever I use them for.The last one was one a had frozen. Makes me angry..cutting corners everywhere.

  16. I just purchased my Miller half ham today but don't need until Dec 24. How do I store it?

  17. Brenda ~ Good news, bad news. The good news is that the Miller hams are great, you’ll love it. The bad news is that is that you’re nine days away from serving the ham, that is way way too long, especially if you’re planning on leftovers for a day or two. You “can” freeze it but in my experience, hams do not freeze well at all, the meat really de-grades. Maybe? Enjoy your ham now and then either get another one for Christmas Eve or do something else. But you can’t risk that long period for any meat, even a whole cut like a ham. I tried it once (out of ignorance) and was very, very sorry.

  18. Allana, I just bought a 18lb "Cook's" ham how are they? I have to have it ready by 6pm this evening and was going to cook it for 6hours. Any suggestions?

  19. Alanna, Thanks for the response. Fortunately for me, my neighborhood grocey store shrink wrapped my ham.Brenda

  20. Brenda - Shrink wrapping will not extend your ham's shelf life.

  21. Ranch Grandma12/20/2016

    What a fabulous tutorial! I learned so much and now know which ham I'll look for this Christmas. Thank you so much for sharing!

  22. Alanna, I have never cooked a ham before but a request was made for one this Christmas. So I bought a ham. Then found a recipe that said "1 Boneless Quarter of Ham" and you mentioned "When I cooked half a ham recently". Could you please explain the difference between whole ham, quarter ham, and half ham? This sounds like a stupid question and I was just going to cut the ham into 4 pieces to get quarters. Then searching to see if there was a special way to cut/carve the ham to get 1/4 I found nothing (Google failed me!) Everyone talks about it like it is some kind of special thing not just 1/4 or 1/2 of a ham. All the carving sites I found are for serving up a ham. You had the most information so can you help? Thanks,

  23. Bruce ~ So your lucky day, I’m taking a break from alllllll-day cooking for the next three days and happened to check mail. So let’s see if I can help.

    First, because hogs are big, hams are big, we occasionally get a big one that weighs 20 or more pounds. Those are good party hams! But not everyone wants that much meat (and even if you do, make sure it fits your oven before getting too committed, yes, experience talking) so meat processors cut hams into halves and quarters. If you’ve ever seen a ham with one flat side? Sure sign it’s a half or a quarter. So I would guess that your recipe calling for a 1/4 ham means it’s a recipe for a ham weighing about three to four or maybe five pounds.

    If you have a bigger ham, you can still follow your recipe, adjusting for size of course and most importantly for time. Cook to internal temperature, not time. That said, my favorite way to cook a ham inside is from AmyGlaze.com, google Ale & Apple Cider Glazed Ham with Rosemary Mustard Crackle. (In fact, I have the glaze in my fridge right now, ready for cooking on Christmas Eve!) Her 10-something pound ham cooked to 160F in 2 hours, that’s a good starting gauge. Good luck with your ham and Merry Christmas!

  24. Anonymous12/23/2016

    I was given a honey baked ham that was frozen. I have no idea how long this person had this ham Would you eat it or should I toss it out.

  25. Anonymous ~ Sorry for the slow reply, I was in the middle of Christmas cooking myself! What did you decide to do? I’d love to know the outcome.

  26. Anonymous1/12/2017

    Alanna The shrink wrapped ham was outstanding. Don't know why you said that it would not preserve the ham.With the air removed it was OK.

  27. Anonymous1/20/2017

    Yum, I love ham. You can freeze it, but befire you dro slice it ir cut into small chunks. After defrosting place the meat on a layer of paper towels with more tiwels on top. Occasionally, press the ham so it's not so wet. Then it'll taste fine again. :)

  28. Anonymous3/14/2017

    I am attempting to make a ham for the first time. I did not grow up with this style of ham in my cuisine, nor in my culture. But I love it and my husband who is Southern loves it, too. I really want to do a good job but I don't know what cut to buy. I found a good crockpot recipe with a lot of positive reviews. I went to Wally World and tried to find a bone-in country ham like the recipe called for. Couldn't find it. I ended up buying a smoked pork shoulder picnic out of desperation just because it was within the poundage that I needed. Will this cut work for the traditional Easter/Christmas ham with cloves, pineapple slices, etc.? What cut do I need and what is a good alternative? Based on your chart, a shank or butt end would be a good one, am I right? Thank you! Clare W.

  29. Thanks for the super informative article!! My wife and I just moved to Lithuania, and they don't sell ham like we do in the states, so that makes finding a ham for Christmas a little difficult. Now we know what cut of meat to look for, and things to ask the butcher. Thanks!!

  30. You mention ways hams are sometimes preserved, e.g. "salting" but you don't mention nitrates/nitrites salts, (gunpowder ingredient) and so-called "organic" hams, preserved or not. "Organic" hams I've seen everywhere list "No nitrates or nitrites except those naturally occurring in celery." CELERY POWDER IS NATURALLY RICH IN NITRITE and I consider this a case of OUTRIGHT CORPORATE FRAUD. This has led up to only being able to deal with a 'real' old-time type of 'country' butcher. You have provided valuable information for the us consumers and I suggest you might want to incorporate this information here. Thanks for all you've provided.

  31. Is there a difference between a whole ham and a country ham? Im okay to say they are the same?? I can not understand this ham thing! Looking for a nice ham to cook and then make a nice ham gravy for my potatoes. I've found pre cooked ham provided too little liquid for my ham gravy.. Help!?

    1. Crazy Kitchen ~ So sorry for slow reply, your question was buried in, um, spam. LOL. But you are so right, ham is SO very confusing -- and worth figuring out. A whole ham and a country ham are different things. A “whole” ham” refers to the cut, other cuts are half hams, ham steaks, etc. A “country” ham refers to how the ham is treated / cured; it may be a whole ham, a half ham, etc. What you call a “pre cooked” isn’t really the problem, since all hams except fresh hams are cooked. What might be the issue is the cooking method. If you just throw a ham in the oven and expect lots of juice, you might get juice but then the meat will be dry, because all the liquid is being sucked out of the meat. For your purposes, when gravy is important, I would suggest a whole or half ham (preferably smoked and bone-in) and baking it in a roasting pan with a couple of inches of liquid, water would work but so would apple cider, say. Add some onion, chopped carrot, maybe an apple and maybe some fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, etc.). I sure hope this helps! It helps to know what you’re shooting for!

    2. Crazy Kitchen ~ PS I recommend calling a local butcher to order a good ham. Or if that’s not possible, look for a ham in the supermarket that’s wrapped in gold metallic foil/paper. Good luck!


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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