05/30/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Which Ham Is Right for You?

A true ham is a rear leg of a hog from hip to knee. Most have a bone in it, but some are boneless. Sounds simple, right? I wish. There are exceptions, the picnic ham, which comes from the lower part of the front leg, and the turkey ham, which comes from a bird (why, oh why?). Let's clarify the murk. Here, in plain English, are the various legal definitions of ham according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal regulating agency. They are listed alphabetically, but I recommend you start by reading the definitions for Fresh Ham, Dry-Cured Ham, and Wet-Cured Ham.

Bayonne Ham is a dry-cured French ham.

Boiled Ham. See Canned Ham.

Black Forest Ham is a German dry-cured and smoked ham.

Brine Cured Ham. See Wet-Cured Ham.

Canned Ham can contain scraps and pieces of meat pressed and formed to fit in the can and may contain up to 10% water or broth. Usually under three pounds. Canned ham labeled "shelf stable" can be stored at room temp for three years. I have no idea how to cook them and no interest in learning.

City Ham. An unofficial term used to describe wet-cured ham. It is usually sold in a plastic bag in the refrigerator case and labeled "ready to cook," "partially cooked" or "ready to serve." The better city hams also say "ham in natural juices."

2010-04-01-smithfield_ham.jpgCountry Ham (shown at right) is the generic name for American dry-cured ham. Sometimes it is smoked, most of the time it is not. It can be served uncooked, and often is, much as prosciutto or other European hams. If it is to be cooked, it needs to be soaked in an ice water bath for 4 to 12 hours, then boiled for 25 minutes per pound, then glazed, and browned at 400F for 15 minutes. Whew.

Dry-Cured Ham is cured (preserved) by burying it a big mound of salt or by rubbing the skin with salt, often mixed with sugar, black pepper, garlic, and other spices. In some places sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are also added. It is then usually hung and air-dried for 6-18 months at cool temperatures, and it dehydrates significantly, concentrating its flavor. Often it is smoked at low temperatures. They are usually pink to brown and can be purchased as a whole ham, half a ham, and is usually served uncooked and sliced thin. Because their production takes a lot of time, dry-cured hams can be expensive.

Fresh Ham is a raw uncured uncooked rear leg, usually with the skin still on. The meat is the typical pale pink to beige color of raw pork. It can be roasted, skin on or off, and it is especially good with the skin removed and smoke roasted.

Green Ham is not a ham covered with green mold meant to accompany green eggs and green beer, although some dry-cured hams do have a mold on them. It is a cured ham that has not been smoked. This is not an official USDA controlled definition, however.

Half Ham. Because whole hams are very large, many producers cut them into butt end and shank end. Butt half is from higher up, on the rump, and has more meat and fat. It is also easier to carve and usually more expensive. It is not to be confused with pork butt which is from the shoulder. Don't ask. The shank half is less fatty.

Ham Steak is usually a cross section slice of wet-cured ham with a round section of thigh bone in the middle. It is good when grilled quickly with or without a glaze or sauce.

Picnic Hams are not really a ham, but a front leg from the shoulder socket through to the elbow sold raw. They usually run 5-8 pounds without the skin. Follow my instructions for cooking pulled pork.

2010-04-01-prosciutto_wall.jpgProsciutto is Italian dry-cured ham preserved with salt, lard, and often other spices. It is occasionally smoked, but usually is not. It is made in many locations around Italy and named after the area of origin such as Prosciutto di Toscano from Tuscany. It is best when the meat is pale pink and the fat is cream colored and is usually sliced paper thin and eaten uncooked (crudo), fat and all. When fresh cut, it has a concentrated briny flavor and the fat is buttery. It is often wrapped around melon chunks, chopped in salads, or on a sandwich. There are numerous recipes that use prosciutto cooked as an ingredient such as pizza.

Prosciutto di Parma or Parma Ham (shown at right) is prosciutto from the Parma region of Italy. It is regarded by many as the best of the Italian hams and made according to strict regulations and supervision. That's Prosciutto di Parma aging in the picture at the top of the page.

Pumped Ham. See Wet-Cured Ham.

Serving European Hams

European hams like Prosciutto and Serrano are rich in flavor, salty, and versatile. They are usually served uncooked. They are sliced thin, often paper thin, and eaten unadorned. Sometimes they are used in a sandwich especially with cheese, or chopped uncooked in a salad like bacon, or wrapped around melon or dates. Some chefs will wrap them around a filet of fish or chicken breast and pan sear them, or stuff a chicken breast, or used as an accent on grilled asparagus. Let your imagination run.
Serrano Ham (Jamon Serrano) and Iberico Ham (Jamon Iberico) are the most prized Spanish dry-cured hams. Iberico Ham hogs are fed acorns and there are several grades depending on how much of their feed is acorns.

Smithfield Ham is a dry-cured country ham from Smithfield, VA. There is a potential point of confusion because the world's largest pork product producer, Smithfield Foods, originally founded in Smithfield but now with plants all over the world, makes a range of hams, most of which are not country hams. Got it?

Smoked Ham has usually been wet-cured and then smoked. It can, however, be simply smoked without the cure.

Spiral-Cut Hams are skinned, wet-cured, and pre-cooked, usually coated with a sweet glaze and vacuum packed in plastic wrap. They usually weigh 7-10 pounds. They can be cooked but be careful because they can dry out easily. If you must heat them, wrap in foil and cook at 325F for about 10 minutes per pound. Bring it up to 140F.

Turkey Ham is turkey thigh meat wet-cured and cooked. Why does USDA let this be called ham?

Virginia Ham is similar to Smithfield Ham, but it is not from Smithfield proper.

Westphalian Ham is dry-cured and smoked German ham from hogs fed acorns.

Wet-Cured Ham is the most popular ham in the US. Often called a City Ham, as opposed to Country Ham, it is meat that is skinned and cured by soaking in a brine or injecting it with a brine. A brine is a salt and water solution with some or all of these ingredients: Sugar, sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate, sodium erythorbate, sodium phosphate, potassium chloride, liquid smoke, and other flavorings. These ingredients will appear on the label. Some wet-cured hams are cooked and labeled as "ready to eat." Some are sold uncooked as "cook before eating". By law these must have prominent labeling with safe handling and cooking instructions. When you get them home, they can be roasted or smoked depending on whether they have been pre-smoked or pre-cooked. For pre-cooked wet-cured hams, heat to 140F and serve (yes, that seems low, but that's what USDA says is safe). For uncooked wet-cured hams, take them up to 160F.


What's your favorite ham and how do you serve it?


All text and photos are Copyright (c) 2010 By Craig "Meathead" Goldwyn, and all rights are reserved. For more of his writing and recipes, please visit