What Is Uncured Ham?

The answer may surprise you.

February 21, 2023
A spiral cut pork Easter or Christmas ham dinner.

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A spiral cut pork Easter or Christmas ham dinner.

Photo by: mphillips007/Getty Images

mphillips007/Getty Images

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Ham

By Alice K. Thompson for Food Network Kitchen

Alice is a contributing writer and editor at Food Network.

Shopping for whole hams or sliced deli ham can lead you to products with a range of labeling claims. One of the most confusing: The difference between those labeled “cured” and those labeled “uncured.” Read on for what you need to know about these sometimes contradictory statements.

What Is Curing?

Curing is an age-old technique using salt and other ingredients to treat foods, usually meat, to flavor and preserve it. Removing moisture, which creates an environment in which harmful bacteria can thrive, is a major way curing preserves meats. Curing can be used together with other processes, like smoking and cooking, to further preserve and flavor foods.

While curing historically relied on naturally occurring ingredients, synthetic versions of chemicals like nitrates and nitrites have become more popular over the last 100 years. These synthetics are readily available, work faster and are superior at preserving the color of cured meats.

What Is Uncured Ham?

Hams labeled as “uncured” or “free of nitrates and nitrites” are, confusingly, still cured. They are salted to remove moisture, and almost always contain ingredients like celery or beet extracts that are a source of naturally occurring nitrates. They may also contain flavorings like sugar, honey and spices and may be smoked or cooked.

So if “uncured” hams are actually cured, why the disconnect? A USDA labeling law requires meats processed without synthetic nitrates and nitrites to be labeled as uncured and/or free of these chemicals.

What’s the Danger of Nitrates In Ham?

In meats, nitrates can lead to the formation of compounds called nitrosomes, a known carcinogen. Citing mounting scientific evidence, this led the World Health Organization in 2015 to classify processed meats (including ham) as Category 1 carcinogen to humans.

Are Uncured Hams Healthier Than Cured Hams?

While many people prefer the idea of ham processed with naturally occurring plant-based ingredients, there is no evidence that these nitrates are safer than synthetic ones. In fact, many groups, including the Center for Science and Public Interest and Consumer Reports, have lobbied for the USDA to change its labeling requirements, citing the potential to mislead consumers.

Read labels on hams carefully and make your own choice about cured versus uncured products. Look in ingredients lists for natural sources of nitrates like celery juice, celery powder or beet extracts, and also wording like “No nitrates or nitrites added except those naturally occurring in celery powder.” The good news is that both cured and uncured hams, whether spiral-cut or deli-sliced, are delicious, easy to prepare and can be cooked or layered into sandwiches interchangeably.

Recipes Using Ham, Cured or Uncured

Food Stylist:  Anne Disrude 
Prop Stylist: Leslie Siegel

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Food Stylist: Anne Disrude Prop Stylist: Leslie Siegel

Photo by: Tina Rupp

Tina Rupp

This recipe starts with a whole smoked ham, an excellent centerpiece for holidays. You choose from four easy basting glazes you can whip up in minutes.

Food Network Kitchen’s Ham Bone Soup, as seen on Food Network.

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Food Network Kitchen’s Ham Bone Soup, as seen on Food Network.

Photo by: Renee Comet

Renee Comet

Got a bone leftover from a whole ham? Lucky you! This soup puts it to good use for a generous pot of white bean soup bursting with veggies.

Food Network's Garlicky Ham and Swiss Grilled Cheese

Food Network's Garlicky Ham and Swiss Grilled Cheese

Photo by: Tara Donne ©FOOD NETWORK : 2012, Television Food Network, G.P.

Tara Donne, FOOD NETWORK : 2012, Television Food Network, G.P.

It’s hard to talk about ham without talking about sandwiches. Here’s a great grilled version that takes inspiration from the flavors of an idealized French country picnic.

Photo by: Armando Rafael

Armando Rafael

Brunch, lunch or dinner: Ham quiche is a favorite for all. This superb recipe includes a buttery homemade crust, but you could substitute a frozen thawed deep-dish pie crust as well.

Photo by: Armando Rafael

Armando Rafael

You can use diced leftover ham, ham steak or even deli ham in this colorful salad. Try in place of pasta salad for your next picnic or cookout.

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