Get to Know Your Ham

I just want a ham! Why are the labels on hams so complicated?

Well, labeling on hams, like most food products, is regulated by the U S Department of Agriculture (USDA) to protect the consumer and assure that food safety standards are met. Using USDA standardized definitions, the label tells us what we are buying and how we need to cook it so we don’t end up ingesting food-borne pathogens. I hate when that happens.Where does Ham Come From?

Ham is the cut of meat from a hog’s hind leg. The shank half is from the lower portion of the leg and is pointy and kind of shaped a little like a funnel and retains its portion of the femur, plus a shank bone. (The

upper portion of the hind leg is the butt-makes sense-my butt is higher than my leg.)   A “shank portion” has the center slices removed to be sold separately as “ham steaks”, while a shank “half ham” does not have slices removed. Hams labeled “bone-in” still have the leg and shank bone and are sold whole

Here’s the Ham
Here’s the Shoulder

or in shank or butt portions. “Semi-boneless” are hams with the shank bone removed but the leg bone still in place and are usually are sold whole. Although it sounds like it belongs here, a picnic ham really comes from the lower portion of the shoulder, which is the front legs of the pig. You need a pig skeleton to keep up with all of this.

A ham can be bought fresh or cured. Fresh which means it has not been processed and will be labeled Fresh Ham, while cured means that it has been processed by either a dry cure or a wet cure. Curing helps prohibit the growth of deadly microorganisms which can be present in pork and other meats. While there are variations of these methods, in dry curing, a fresh ham is rubbed with a dry-cure mixture of salt and other ingredients which pulls out moisture and produces a higher intensity of flavor and less moisture. While this generally produces a salty product, the USDA has made adjustments allowing curing ingredients which minimizes the saltiness. Dry cured ham includes country hams or prosciutto and typically lose about 20% of their weight in the process. More common are wet cured hams, which are cured in a brine solution of water, salt, sugar, nitrites and other ingredients and seasonings and adds water to the ham, increasing its weight and diluting its flavor. Water can dilute the flavor somewhat as the more water that is added, the less flavor the ham will have.

Whats that Label Mean?

Basically, we are concerned with wet cured hams here.  After curing, hams are usually smoked and sometimes cooked.  USDA requires all of this to be reflected on the label, resulting in hams that are labeled cooked, fully cooked or ready to eat. These can be eaten right out of the package but are often preferred reheated or further smoked to an internal temperature of 140 degrees. If the ham is not fully cooked after smoking, it will be labeled ready to cook or cook thoroughly and must provide cooking instructions.  USDA guidelines suggest cooking these hams at 325 degrees until the reach an internal temperature of 145 degrees as long at they were processed in a USDA inspected plant. If a ready to east ham was bot processed in USDA inspected plant, the guideline calls for an internal temperature of 165 degrees to assure that the food-borne pathogens are eliminated.

Since the wet curing process results in the addition of water in a bath and/or by injection, the USDA requires that the amount of water added to the ham be noted on the labels. There are four categories listed in the USDA definitions based on the presence of added water and the percentage of protein on a fat-free basis.

  • Ham: This is a cured leg of pork that contains no less than 20.5-percent of protein.  While added water is permitted in the curing process, it must be listed in order of its proportion in the ingredients.
  • Ham with Natural Juices:  This is a cured ham which contains no less than 18.5-percent protein with 7 or 8 percent added water.
  • Ham-Water Added: This cured ham is 17-percent protein with no more than 10 percent water added by weight, which means that the water is included in the ham’s total weight.
  • Ham and Water Product: This cured ham is less than 17-percent protein and can contain any amount of added water and additives.

Believe me, that’s just the Cliff notes version of all things ham. As with all meat products and food, it is important to read the label on hams to determine the proper preparation needed. There is a lot more information available out there and if you’re interested, a couple of places to look are:

Search Ham & Food Safety at the U. S. Department of Agriculture website

Sear Ham Labels at the South Dakota State University Extension Services    website


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