Ham: Labeling, Cuts and Buying Ham

Thanks to the “loyal reader” who shared this information (edited slightly by me) from an on-line article about ham. This information is really timely – so much so that I encourage you to copy and clip for your files.

What kind to buy? Bone-in or boneless; half or whole; spiral sliced or unsliced. Water content varies greatly.

Prices on hams brief widely – the least expensive usually have the highest water content, and the water is what gives the ham weight, but water doesn’t contribute flavor, nutrition, etc.

Depending on how a fully cooked ham is cured or how much water is injected with the brining solution, water content varies widely – so much that the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires labels to reflect water content.

Here’s what label names mean for the consumer.

This generic label refers to hams with the lowest water content. To qualify, the product must weigh no more than 100 percent of its original weight before smoking or curing.

No-water-added ham
Hams are injected with a brining solution of salt, sugar, seasonings and water (to distribute it through the flesh) before they are cooked or enter the smokehouse. Hams injected with a low amount of water – which sweats out during the smoking process – earn the “ham” label, and are considered no-water-added products by the USDA. These hams are typically sold through specialty ham companies.

Ham with natural juices
Even many packaged cold cuts bear this label. The retention of water results in a packaged product that weighs up to 108 percent of its original weight before curing and smoking.

I think bone-in hams have the best flavor. But there are many more choices.

Ham-water added
Canned hams and cold cuts most commonly bear this label. Ten percent of the weight of a water-added ham may be solution. This ham does not heat well; it loses water in the oven and changes texture. Best served cold, sliced thin in sandwiches.
Cuts of ham

Uncut whole ham
Best for a big dinner, or if you want leftovers – including a ham bone for flavoring soup. A 12- to 14-pound whole ham will feed 20 to 24 people with leftovers.

These are available as whole or half hams. The center bone is left in, and the ham is sliced in a spiral pattern around it.

Bones are removed from either end, leaving just one large bone in the middle. Since some of the fat is trimmed along with the bone, it’s a good choice for those who prefer more lean meat per pound. They require additional cooking.

Bone-in ham, cut in half, so that you get either the shank end or the butt end. The shank end will not have any center steaks (which are leaner), but the butt end will. Good choice for those who want bone-in flavor but aren’t feeding a crowd. Sold both cooked and partially cooked.

The bones are removed, and the muscles are tumbled together to give the ham a compact shape. The texture isn’t exactly the same as that of a bone-in ham. Almost all boneless hams are fully cooked.

Steak or slices

A good choice if you’re cooking for two. Supermarkets sell ham steaks, cut from the center, which is the leanest portion of the ham. They may be sold fully cooked or partially cooked. The Honeybaked Ham Co. sells thin slices of its spiral sliced ham by the half pound.
Types of ham

There are many types of ham, all of them cut from the hind leg of a hog, then cured by brining or applying a salt rub.

Fully cooked
Hams cured before cooking by injecting with a brine solution containing water, salt, nitrates, nitrites, sugar and spices. The hams are usually smoked; they may be fully cooked in the smokehouse, or partially smoked, then roasted.
Some hams get their flavor from artificial “liquid” smoke, rather than natural hardwood smoke. Fully cooked hams are widely available at supermarkets, specialty stores and by mail order.

Partially cooked
Hams cured with a brine solution, then smoked until they are partially cooked. They must be cooked at home according to the package directions to an internal temperature of 160 F before serving.

Smithfield hams are perhaps the most famous of this variety. I’ve used these in classes and they are delicious! Reminds me of my mom’s way of cooking ham. Also known as country-style, Southern-style, Virginia ham or old-fashioned ham, it’s like an American cousin to prosciutto. Instead of brining, the ham is cured with a dry salt rub that draws out moisture, deepening the ham’s flavor and color.

It is smoked, then aged for anywhere from three months to a year. Dry and salty, the ham is best served in small, thin (but not paper-thin) slices.

Most dry-cured hams are not ready-to-eat; they must be soaked in water for hours to remove some of the salt, then cooked. Dry-cured hams do not require refrigeration; they contain so little moisture that bacteria cannot multiply in them. As with certain aged cheeses, mold often forms on the surface of dry-cured hams; it is harmless and can be scrubbed off.


Servings – How much ham to buy per person:

A bone-in ham will yield two to three servings per pound; a boneless ham will yield four to five servings per pound. If you want leftovers, factor those servings in when you buy your ham.

Storage and leftovers
According to Ceci Snyder, spokeswoman for the National Pork Board, leftover ham may be kept in the refrigerator, tightly wrapped for three to five days. Although ham may be frozen, the varieties that retain water (natural juices and water-added hams) may suffer a textural change that make it best suited for cooking, rather than serving sliced. Hams with no-water-added freeze well.

Heating fully cooked hams

Although fully cooked hams may be served cold, it’s recommended that heating brings the best flavor. I always do this. Consult your package directions before heating; most recommend heating to an internal temperature of 140 F.

SAFETY from the USDA

Buy it with the bone.
It’s always more juicy and tender. A whole 12- to 14-pound ham serves 20 to 24 people, with leftovers.
Shank end is best.
The best ham is the meat on the shank end. It has the most flavor because there’s a little bit more fat on that end. The shank end is the pointy end of the ham, whereas the butt end is rounded.

2 thoughts on “Ham: Labeling, Cuts and Buying Ham

  1. I boile my ham to get the salt out of it i. Buy the one that has a mesh all over it i cant remember the name of it and i cant find it looks like those harvest ham what do you call them i really would like to know thank you . Daniel


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