The cut of meat from a hog's hind leg, generally from the middle of the shank bone to the aitch (hip) bone. The actual length of the cut varies according to the producer. The unprocessed meat is referred to as fresh ham, but most ham goes through a curing process after which it's referred to as cured ham. The final flavor of a ham can be attributed to a combination of many factors. Before the animal is slaughtered, those factors include its breed, the type of feed on which it was raised and the age at which it was slaughtered. Most hogs are fed corn, but animals headed for the gourmet market may have treats such as acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts or peanuts added to their diets. After the hog is slaughtered, the meat is usually cured in one of three ways dry curing, sweet-pickle curing or injection curing. Dry curing involves salting the surface of the ham thoroughly, then storing it until the salt saturates the meat. This procedure may be repeated several times. Sweet-pickle curing involves immersing the ham in a sweet brine with added seasonings (usually a secret recipe of the producer). If sugar is added to the curing mix the ham may be labeled sugar-cured. Most mass producers of ham use the injection-curing method whereby the ham is injected with brine. This method is sometimes combined with one of the other curing methods. The length of time a ham is cured will affect the final flavor. Most hams for American consumers have a light or mild cure. After curing, a ham may go through a smoking process that adds both flavor and aging capability. The length of time a ham is smoked varies widely depending on the desired result. Those being prepared for the mass market are usually smoked lightly or not at all. Hams for the gourmet palate are more heavily smoked, the process lasting a month or more. The smoked flavor will vary depending on the substance used. Hickory and maple are the woods of preference, and some producers add exotic ingredients such as juniper berries, sage or peat. Once curing and smoking are completed, gourmet hams are usually aged to further develop flavors; most mass-produced hams are not. In some cases, aging can take up to two years. Hams are sold in several forms including boneless (with the hip, thigh and shank bones removed), partially boned (with the hip and/or shank bones removed) and bone-in. Since bone contributes flavor to the meat during cooking, most gourmet-ham producers leave some bone in. Hams are marketed in several sizes, the most popular being whole, halves (shank or butt ends only), shank, butt and center-cut slices or steaks ranging in thickness from 1/2 to 3/4 inch. Whole hams usually weigh from 8 to 18 pounds. Canned hams may either be a whole piece of boneless meat or they may be "formed" from bits and pieces of meat held together with a gelatin mixture. Hams are available fully cooked, partially cooked or uncooked. Those that are fully-cooked are heated to an internal temperature of 148°F or above, partially cooked hams to at least 137°F (which kills the trichina parasite). Uncooked and partially cookedcountry-cured" (or "country-style"). The majority of these "country" hams come from Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia; each region adds its own distinctive style to the ham it produces. Probably the most famous country-cured ham is the smithfield ham from the Virginia town of the same name. A wide selection of specially cured hams are also imported from many European countries. The most well known are prosciutto from Italy, Germany's westphalian, France's bayonne and the York ham from England. Prosciutto and Westphalian are generally sold in paper-thin slices. When buying a fresh ham, choose one that's firm and plump. The meat should be finely grained and rosy pink. Refrigerate in the ham's original wrapping or container for up to one week. Some country-style hams can be stored in a cool place for one to two months. Longer storage is possible, but moisture evaporation causes the ham to shrink and toughen. Canned hams should be stored according to label directions. Some require refrigeration; others have been sterilized and do not need to be refrigerated until after they've been opened. Ham slices should be wrapped airtight and refrigerated up to three days. Ham can be baked, grilled, sautéed, broiled or simmered. Precooked hams can be eaten without additional cooking. Heavily cured country-style hams, depending on how salty they are, may require scrubbing, then soaking up to 24 hours before cooking.
From The Food Lover's Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.