Ham! Ham—unless you are a pig or a non-eater thereof—is a joyous meat, indeed, especially in the morning. Bacon and sausage hog the bulk of the breakfast glory, but ham is steadfast, waiting in the wings until it’s trotted out to play its supporting role on a biscuit, alongside eggs (green, ideally), chunked into a casserole or nestled into a muffin tin to create exceedingly Pinterest-friendly ham cups to be filled with cheese, eggs, grits, and whatnot. Rarely is it the star, but don’t mistake that for dullness or unimportance. Think of American ham as a talented character actor that can appear in many guises (country ham, Smithfield ham, spiral-cut ham), enhance the scene without stepping all over everyone else’s lines, and leave folks thirsty for just a little bit more.
And just so we’re clear, here’s what ham is: meat from the upper part of a pig’s leg. Technically, it doesn’t have to be cured, but that’ll generally be referred to up front as “fresh ham” or “green ham”—or at least it should be, by all standards of decency. The smoky and/or salty, sometimes mold-covered stuff is what most folks are looking for in the morning, so here’s an easy guide to a few of the American ham terms and varieties you might encounter on a breakfast menu or your butcher’s cases. Go H.A.M. and try ‘em all.
These uncooked hams are dry-cured with salt and spiced (sugar and pepper are often in the mix), usually smoked (though not always), then left to hang and age anywhere from a few months to several years. During this time, a country ham might accumulate mold on the outside, but that’s all part of the funk and magic (and it’s rinsed off before serving). The meat is intensely salty—which is part of its appeal. It might be sold whole or in slices, and may be baked, fried, boiled, or simmered before eating. A little goes a very long way, but a really good way.
This is usually country ham, made in Virginia, by pigs that were raised in Virginia, generally on a diet that includes peanuts. There’s no USDA statute that legally requires a Virginia-style ham to be made in the state, so if that’s important to you, check the label or ask your server or butcher.
This isn’t just ham that’s made by Smithfield Foods—though the Virginia-based, Chinese-owned company does in fact sell hams. To be called a “Smithfield,” by law (yes, by law) this country ham has to be cured and processed (cold-smoked, covered in pepper, and aged at least six months) in Smithfield, Virginia, and come from peanut-fed pigs.
We’ll let some people from New Jersey explain this one. And while we're talking regional hams, Maryland ham is a prepared, stuffed dish, rather than a specific kind of ham, itself—but people might yell if it weren't included, so there.
These here hams are wet-cured, meaning that they’ve been soaked in or injected with brine to cure it—usually one made up of salt, sugar, seasonings and some kind of curing agent, often nitrates or nitrites. This is the most popular type of ham sold in the United States.
This is a big ol’ thick slice of steak from a ham roast—usually wet-cured—and may or may not contain a bone. Some people call this “breakfast ham,” and we salute them.
The HoneyBaked Ham Company invented this cutting technique more than four decades ago, but the patent expired in 1981, and anyone with the proper technology can have at it. Basically, stand a ham on end and make cuts around the bone to form thin, even, elegant slices. It’s rill fancy.
Black Forest Ham
In the European Union, only ham that’s been made by licensed butchers in the Black Forest region of Germany can be called Black Forest ham or Schwarzwälder Schinken—and it’s got to be wet-brined in jars, “afterburned,” and aged. But in the US, all bets are off. It’s usually smoky, boneless, and has a blackened skin, but there’s no specifically-mandated method for getting it to that state.
Mmmmmm...canned ham. This is boneless ham—either whole or pieces—mixed with gelatin and molded into a shape that fits into the usually teardrop-shaped tin. It might be shelf-stable or need to be refrigerated, but it does need to be cooked before consumption.
In slang terms, this is someone’s bare hindquarters pressed up against glass in an act of “mooning.” You do not want this near your eggs. In a culinary context, it’s scraps of meat that have been mixed with a binder and shaped or pressed into a loaf.