Do You Know: How Is Ham Made? Interesting Food Facts About Meat

Rajnandini Roychoudhury
Feb 01, 2023 By Rajnandini Roychoudhury
Originally Published on Oct 28, 2021
Edited by Monisha Kochhar
Fact-checked by Sakshi Raturi
Beef pastrami slices on cutting board.

The term ‘ham’ is coined from the English word ‘ham’ which refers to the meat that is being cut from the hind leg of a pig.

Ham is widely consumed all over the world as it is a processed meat that can be served for breakfast and even at a holiday dinner. It is prepared by curing raw pork, then smoking and seasoning it in any way you like.

The recipe for ham goes a long way back into history as there are references made to ham in the Latin prose of the first century BC. However, China takes credit for the production of cured ham in 4900 BC.

The fascination with ham was brought to ancient Europe by the Romans who traded with the Chinese. In the book 'Larousse Gastronomique' it is mentioned that ham originated in Gaul or Western Europe.

Nevertheless, these unique recipes of ham survived and it is still being eaten. The traditional method to prepare ham is by the curing process.

The cut of meat is from the hind leg of the pig which is either dry-cured or wet-cured. Later it can be smoked and seasoned with flavors.

Country ham is dry-cured while city ham is wet-cured. There can be different varieties of ham such as Bayonne ham, cooked ham, Black Forest ham, Canadian bacon, and many more.

Ham is processed meat therefore just like bologna, and cold cuts, it contains a great amount of sodium. Excessive or regular intake of ham can cause health issues.

If you want to know more information on ham then keep reading this article. Please check our other articles on how is bacon made and how is balsamic vinegar made.

Where does ham come from?

The origin of ham is a little ambiguous because there is no confirmed source even though it is one of the age-old recipes. There are various theories relating to the origin of ham that are discussed below.

According to the Chinese, they produced cured ham which was primarily the cuts of meat from the hind leg of a pig. The Romans later learned about this recipe while trading with them and soon it spread all across Western Europe.

However, it is spoken of in 'Larousse Gastronomique' that ham had an origin in Gaul. In his Latin prose ‘De Agri Cultura’, Cato mentioned the salting of hams around 160 BC.

How is processed ham made?

There are two methods of processing ham, both involve curing the meat. Many other types of meat are cured as well, just like ham.

Curing ham is the process of adding salt, which will draw out the moisture from the meat by way of osmosis. The water content of the meat decreases and the concentration of solute thus increases.

The meat is preserved and its taste, quality, and texture are all intact be it cooked or uncooked. However, the excess amount of salt that is being used for processing the meat also increases sodium content. This method of salting the meat is also known as the curing process.

Curing is of two types, the first is dry-curing which is done by cleaning up the ham and then using salt as a curative agent, sometimes even nitrite is used with salt. Therefore salt and nitrite are used to cover the entire piece of meat and it is pressed in order to drain out all the fluid.

While processing, various kinds of spices or herbs are incorporated to enhance its flavor. After that, the hams are rinsed and hung in a dark and temperature-controlled room.

Then it is hung in the air until it is ready to serve.

The duration of the processing of ham may vary, as it can take 8-12 months or sometimes even two years. Chemicals such as potassium nitrate or sodium nitrite are used to keep the meat bacteria-free.

The second type of curing is wet-curing, which is done by dunking the meat in a brine. Brine is a solution that primarily constitutes salt; along with that, sugar and other ingredients are added for flavor.

These hams are brined for 3-14 days, after which they are prepared to serve. The difference that brining makes is that it increases the weight after processing.

The ham is further preserved by smoking, this kind of ham is called smoked ham. Smoking ham tends to enhance its flavor.

Several hams are smoked together by hanging them on hooks in smokers where wood chips are used, and the temperature is kept between 70-80 F (21-26.6 C). This process can take between 48 hours and six weeks.

Is ham a raw meat?

Ham is the meat that is cut from the hind shank, but when it is being sold, it is sold in various styles and flavors.

If the ham is freshly cut and it is not cured or has not gone through any kind of processing, it is raw or fresh. It is advised not to eat raw ham as it can cause various illnesses.

Cured, baked, or smoked hams are considered pre-cooked and can be consumed after you purchase them. They can be eaten the way they are, but wet-cured ham needs to be put in an oven and heated before eating.

How is ham different from pork?

The major distinction between ham and pork is their cut, just like bacon and ham. Let us discuss this further.

Though pork and ham are both obtained from pigs, they are different from each other. They do not only differ in cut but also their texture, cooking methods, and appearance can differ significantly.

Pork refers to the meat that belongs to any portion, but ham specifically refers to the shank region. Ham is produced by curing, cooking, or smoking the meats and can be consumed after curing.

It is good to always know your ham before you purchase it from the market as there are different varieties of ham available. Despite the basic difference of curing, ham may differ in texture, type and flavor.

Hams may come with or without bone; the leg end is thick while the butt end is lean. Hams are often sold as fresh or cured; fresh ham refers to freshly cut meat that has not undergone any sort of processing.

Cured ham can be dry or wet; these hams are cured with salt, flavors, and chemicals like nitrites.

Hams that are dry-cured are called country ham while city ham refers to wet-cured ham. City hams are pre-cooked and can therefore be made at home by putting them in an oven and heating them for a short period.

Country hams are eaten the way they are or else they can be prepared just like city hams.

Country ham is soaked in water to release some of the salt, and then a glaze, such as brown sugar can be added. Hams are also sold as fully cooked, partially cooked, or uncooked.

Cooked hams are heated at 148 F (64.4 C), partially cooked hams need 137 F (58.3 C), and uncooked hams are baked at higher temperatures. Smoked ham on the other hand is smoked for hours or even for weeks before it is served.

Hams are cooked in different styles that include Bayonne ham, which is a boneless French ham named after the French city Bayonne. Capicola is another style of ham which is an Italian version of cured ham. However, the difference is that it is made from pork neck.

Culatello is another Italian cured ham but it is soaked in wine. Gammon is popular in Great Britain and this ham must be cooked before serving.

Canadian bacon may not sound like ham but it is a type of ham, however, the meat is taken from the pork loin rather than the hind leg. In wet-cured hams, sweeteners like maple syrup or honey are used.

By adding honey to the brine mixture it makes the ham both sweet and savory. York ham is primarily served in England and served with traditional Madeira sauce.

Hickory smoked ham is smoked specifically over hickory chips. Serrano and speck ham are dry-cured hams, while Smithfield ham is wet-cured and is very expensive.

Hams are undoubtedly delicious in any form but they can have some major impacts on our health. So here are a few pros and cons of eating ham.

Ham contains traces of selenium which lowers the risks of thyroid diseases. However, the sodium content of both bacon and ham is relatively high.

Therefore people with conditions of high blood pressure or heart diseases are asked to avoid or reduce their intake. Two to three slices of ham contain 26% of recommended daily sodium value, 0.07 oz (2 g) of fat, and 0.4 oz (11.3 g) of protein.

Particularly, the meats that are served in the deli contain excess sodium, fat, and nitrites that are not good for health. Some chemicals that are used in the recipes may contain carcinogenic chemicals that can cause cancer.

Here at Kidadl, we have carefully created lots of interesting family-friendly facts for everyone to enjoy! If you liked our suggestions for how is ham made then why not take a look at are birds warm-blooded, or are black diamonds real?

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Written by Rajnandini Roychoudhury

Bachelor of Arts specializing in English, Master of Arts specializing in English

Rajnandini Roychoudhury picture

Rajnandini RoychoudhuryBachelor of Arts specializing in English, Master of Arts specializing in English

With a Master of Arts in English, Rajnandini has pursued her passion for the arts and has become an experienced content writer. She has worked with companies such as Writer's Zone and has had her writing skills recognized by publications such as The Telegraph. Rajnandini is also trilingual and enjoys various hobbies such as music, movies, travel, philanthropy, writing her blog, and reading classic British literature. 

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Fact-checked by Sakshi Raturi

Postgraduate Diploma in Management

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Sakshi RaturiPostgraduate Diploma in Management

Sakshi has experience in marketing strategy, social media planning, and recruiting industry experts for capstone projects, she has displayed a commitment to enhancing their skills and knowledge. She has won multiple awards, including a Certificate of Appreciation for Creative Writing and a Certificate of Merit for Immaculate Turut, and is always seeking new opportunities to grow and develop.

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