Ham is always from the upper part of the hind leg of a pig. Also, it is best cooked at a temperature of 325F. The rest of the details, however, are very confusing. Just check your supermarket if you doubt me. Hams can be fresh, cured, smoked, from the city, from the country or in a can. They come whole, spiral sliced or in sections, but could be ready to eat, partially cooked or completely raw. Here's a quick breakdown of bone-in variety, my favorite, to make shopping a little easier:
Fresh Ham: An uncured, unsmoked, uncooked ham.
Smoked Ham: A ham smoked over smouldering fires in a smokehouse, treated with atomized smoke in a heated smokehouse, or injected with liquid smoke. Usually cured first.
Cured Ham: A ham cured, by a wet or dry method, that has the classic pink color and intense flavor everyone loves. May or may not be smoked.
Wet Cured or City Ham: Fresh ham is pumped through, or injected with a water based solution of salt, potassium nitrate (saltpeter) and other seasonings, it may or may not be fully cooked during this process. Residual water content varies, and must be indicated on the label. The lower the added water amounts, the higher the quality. Here's how wet cured hams are labeled:
- "Ham" - Wet cured by immersion, not injection. Lightly smoked, and impossible to find.
- "Ham with Natural Juices" - 7-8 % added water. Fully cooked spiral hams fall in this category, which are my favorite. Very tasty and no slicing!
- "Ham with Added Water" - No more than 10% added water. A fine choice for a juicer ham, but not as intensly flavored.
- "Ham and Water Product" - Any amount over 10% added water. I never like the word "Product" on my meat labels.
Dry Cured or Country Ham: Fresh ham is rubbed with curing ingredients that include potassium nitrates, seasonings and a whole lot of salt. Developed as a preservative, this method concentrates the flavors and draws out the moisture where bacteria breeds. Refrigeration is not needed during or after the aging process. However, the moldy exterior and high sodium content require scrubbing and soaking before cooking. Sounds labor intensive, but if you've ever tasted a Smithfield ham, you know it's so good.
Hams are sold whole, but that's a lot of pork. Here are the typical cuts.
Butt Portion: From the very top part of the leg. It contains more meat and fat. Easy to carve.
Shank Portion: Has slightly sweeter flavor, less meat and fat. A bit less expensive.
Picnic Cuts: Not from the official ham section, thus never labeled as such. Who knew?
And from the USDA website, here are a few very official sounding bits of information. Safety first.
- Fully cooked "whole or half... vacuum-packaged hams packaged in federally inspected plants can be eaten cold just as they come from their packaging."
- "If you want to reheat these cooked hams, set the oven no lower than 325F and heat to an internal temperature of 140F as measured with a food thermometer."
- "Cook-before-eating hams (partially cooked) or fresh hams (raw) must reach 160F to be safely cooked before serving. Cook in an oven set no lower than 325F."
Geez, now you need a glass of wine. A Riesling, of course.