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© Denzil Green

A ham is a cut of pork.

All ham comes from the hind leg of the pig. (Meat that comes from the front leg is called "pork shoulder picnic.")

Most people say that if it's not cured or smoked, it's not ham; it's just a back leg of pork, because to them ham infers a treatment process the meat went through. Others say that ham is term for a cut of meat, whatever happens to it afterward, that refers to the upper portion of the back leg. They say that if it's not turned into "ham" ham, then it's called "fresh ham."

Both would agree, though, that ham can only come from the hind legs of a pig, not the front. However, the exception to both schools of thought is that cut of pork known as "picnic ham", which is not technically a ham, because it comes from the front shoulder of the pig. But, it is cured, to give it somewhat the taste of ham.

Ham as a "cut" of meat -- the upper portion of the pig's back leg -- contains the aitch, leg and hind shank bones.

There are so many kinds of ham. Perhaps the most basic two categories are those that require cooking, and those that don't, and would in fact be ruined with cooking. To be safe healthwise, and equally not to ruin your investment, be sure to check out which one your purchase is if you aren't sure.

Ham can be fresh (some say), dry-cured, wet-cured, cured and smoked, air-dried, cured and air dried, cured, smoke and air-dried, etc.

Smoking ham used to be done as a way to preserve it. Now it is done for flavour. Some smoke flavouring is usually added artificially now. This does not give it the same preservative properties as real smoking wood. Artificial smoke flavouring is meant to fool your taste buds, not botulism bacteria.

Northern European style hams are meant to be eaten as a main course. Southern European hams are meant to be a cold cut or appetizer.

Italian and Spanish style hams are dry-cured, aged and eaten-raw. The dry-curing preserves them.

British style hams are cured, but still need cooking before eating. They are wet-cured, either in brine or by having the brine injected into them. This curing doesn't preserve them, but extends their storage life by a bit, and flavours them.

Before refrigeration, a great deal of salt had to be used in all Hams. Consequently, Hams had to be soaked and / or boiled before baking to leach some of the salt out.

Sodium Nitrite is added to Ham while being processed, even in old fashioned methods. They help prevent botulism, and as a side benefit, keep Ham pink -- it would turn grey otherwise. Uncured Ham is a pale pink or a rosey-beige colour. If a Ham has been cured, it will be a deeper pink colour.

Ham is often served at high holidays. It is traditional in England on Boxing Day, and is often served for Easter in North America.

Turkey Ham must come from turkey thighs.

Compare Ham with Gammon (see separate entry.)

Cooking Tips

When serving boneless Ham, allow up to 1/3 pound (140 g) per person.

When serving Ham with a large bone in it, allow up to 3/4 pound (350g) per person.

If the label on the Ham says it is already fully cooked, then just heat at 325 F (165 C) allowing about 10 minutes per pound until internal temperature is 130 F (55 C). Cook uncooked and partially cooked Hams at 325 F (165 C) until internal temperature is 170 F (77 C).

Like all meats, don't forget to let the Ham rest for at least 15 minutes before carving and serving.

Don't throw that Ham bone out. Even if you don't have time to make soup with it right now, it will freeze fine until you do have time.


Cut Ham will sometimes have rainbow-like colours. This is caused by the nitrates -- it is not an indication of the meat being bad or good.


1 pound (450g) cooked Ham = 3 cups diced = 2 cups ground

Half a ham will be 7 to 10 pounds (3 to 4 1/2 kg.)

Per serving:
Boneless Ham: 1/4 to 1/3 pound
Small bone: 1/3 to 1/2 pound
Large bone: 3/4 to 1 pound per serving

Storage Hints

Refrigerate fresh Hams and cook within 5 days. Refrigerate cured Ham for up to a week.

Canned Ham (unless it's a kind that says store in refrigerator) can be stored on the shelf for up to two years. After cooking Ham or opening canned Ham, use within 5 days and keep refrigerated.

Freeze leftover Ham for up to a month. Freeze whole, uncooked Hams for up to 6 months.

History Notes

Ham used to be made from wild boars as well as domesticated pigs.

Literature & Lore

"The custom of eating a gammon of bacon at Easter was this - namely, to shew their abhorrence of Judaism at that solemn commemoration of our Lord's resurrection." -- Chambers, Roger. The book of days: a miscellany of popular antiquities in connection with the calendar, including anecdote, biography, & history, curiosities of literature and oddities of human life and character. London: W and R. Chambers Ltd. 1832. Volume 2. Page 440.

"Ham's substantial, ham is fat.
Ham is firm and sound.
Ham's what God was getting at
When He made pigs so round."

-- Roy Blount, Jr. (American writer, 1941 - )

Language Notes

Ham comes from the Old English word "hamm."


Cornish, Richard. Hog Heaven. Melbourne, Australia: The Age, 15 December 2003.

See also:


Ardennes Dry Ham; Bradenham Ham; Brine-Cured Ham; Butt End Ham; Country Ham; Devilled Ham; Fresh Ham; Gammon; Ground Ham; Guijuelo Ham; Ham Steak; Ham; Irish Ham; Leoncini Roasted Ham; Limerick Ham; Los Pedroches Ham; Pannonia Ham; Spanish Ham; Suffolk Cure; Taylor Pork Roll; Virginia Ham; Wachholder Ham

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Also called:

Jambon (French); Schinken (German); Prosciutto (Italian); Anca, Jamón, Pernil, Pierna (Spanish); Perna (Roman)


Oulton, Randal. "Ham." CooksInfo.com. Published 16 June 2004; revised 18 February 2011. Web. Accessed 06/21/2018. <http://www.cooksinfo.com/ham>.

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