Ham is the butt and shank portion from the hind leg of a pig. It’s a popular choice in many countries, some of which proudly produce “specialty” hams.
There are so many choices when it comes to buying ham – some are salty, while others may be sweet or smoky. Fresh, uncooked hams will taste more like a pork roast because they have not been cured.
Hams fall into three categories:
Fresh: These are uncooked and will be much milder than their seasoned counterparts. The greatest benefit of buying a fresh ham is its lack of sodium preservative.
Dry-cured: Also called “country” hams. Salt and other curatives are used for aging, which can range from a few weeks to several months.
Well-known varieties include prosciutto or Parma (Italian), Black Forest (German), Bayonne (French), Jamon Serrano (Spanish),York (English), and Virginia (U.S.). Always follow labeling instructions when cooking dry-cured hams; some are consumed “raw” (prosciutto) while others are not fully cooked.
Wet-cured: Also referred to as “city” hams. They have both a dry and wet coating or injection. This can be a brine of salt and honey or a host of other preservatives and flavorings. These are the most common hams as they have a very brief curing process. They may be pre-boiled and sold as “fully-cooked” or “ready-to-eat.”
Some hams are smoked as an additional step to the wet or dry curing process. This imparts aroma and flavor to the exterior, but does not change the taste of the meat. If the ham is labeled “honey” or “sugar” cured, the meat will be sweeter.
There are also many products that are not technically hams as they come from the shoulder or back. These include picnic, cottage, and copocolla.
Bone-in vs. Boneless: Bone-in and semi-boneless hams are generally more flavorful than boneless. Also, cooking with – and then trimming – the fat will help retain moisture. Keep in mind that boneless products will serve more people pound for pound.
Appearance: Some marbling is recommended, but should be limited through the lean, visible portions of a shank, butt, or center cut steak. Surface iridescence is not a sign of poor quality, but tinges of green or gray are indications of age and/or bacteria. Some dry-cured hams develop surface mold, which is acceptable and normal. Scrub under hot water to remove.
Water Content: The amount of water content in a ham varies from “0” (dry-cured) to what is labeled “ham and water product.” How you plan to use the ham will affect the selection. A higher water content will make good sandwich slices, a little “water added” is useful for steak cuts, “natural juices” is a better bet for roasted ham.