Let’s start with the basics – what is a ham?
A ham is the meat of the leg – nearly always the back leg – of a pig, from its ankle to its rump. If you were to go to a butcher shop and ask for one that was raw, you’d be getting what’s called a fresh ham. You could cut it up and cook it like any other fresh meat. But in the US, we almost never buy fresh ham. Instead, practically all hams we buy are cured.
The method of curing has a huge impact on its flavor and how you eat it. There are two methods for curing ham: a wet cure, and a dry cure. (If those sound familiar, you’re not wrong! These two methods are both used for curing bacon.)
A “city” ham is wet cured and typically cooked before it’s sold.
A wet cured ham is cured with a saltwater brine. Traditionally, you’d soak the ham in the brine for a few days or weeks, until the salt had penetrated the ham fully. In industrial settings, that process is sped up by injecting the hams with brine. After curing, the hams may be smoked. Before they’re sold, they’re typically cooked.
These are the hams you’d buy at the supermarket and heat in the oven, sometimes with a glaze. The industry term for this style of ham is a city ham. City hams are juicy and sweet, and are your best bet for your special holiday meal. While they are ready to eat at room temperature, they’re particularly delicious heated in the oven.
A “country” ham is dry cured and aged for months or years before it’s sold.
A dry cured ham is also cured in salt, but instead of a brine, the raw ham is coated in dry salt, then aged for months or years. All that curing results in ham that tends to have a firmer texture and a saltier, deeper flavor than city ham.
Dry cured hams are common in the US across a band of Appalachia from Tennessee to Virginia, where they’re called country hams. American country hams are typically smoked, adding an additional level of savory flavor. Dry curing is also used for many of Europe’s most famous hams, including Spain’s jamón Ibérico, France’s jambon de Bayonne, and Italy’s prosciutto di Parma. These hams are generally not smoked (though in some corners of Europe you do find smoked hams, like northern Italy’s speck).
Thanks to the long curing time, dry cured hams are safe to eat without any cooking. For a tapas platter or charcuterie board, a dry cured ham makes for a stunning presentation and it’s so flavorful that even a few bites can go a long way.