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Ham (4).jpg
Half of a ham
Type Preserved meat
Main ingredients Cured leg cut pork
Typical slice of ham Schinken-gekocht.jpg
Typical slice of ham

Ham is pork from a leg cut that has been preserved by wet or dry curing, with or without smoking. [1] As a processed meat, the term "ham" includes both whole cuts of meat and ones that have been mechanically formed.


Ham is made around the world, including a number of regional specialties, such as Westphalian ham and some varieties of Spanish jamón. In addition, numerous ham products have specific geographical naming protection, such as prosciutto di Parma in Europe, and Smithfield ham in the US.


The preserving of pork leg as ham has a long history, with traces of production of cured ham among the Etruscan civilization known in the 6th and 5th century BC. [2]

Cato the Elder wrote about the "salting of hams" in his De Agri Cultura tome around 160 BC. [3]

There are claims that the Chinese were the first people to mention the production of cured ham. [4] Larousse Gastronomique claims an origin from Gaul. [5] It was certainly well established by the Roman period, as evidenced by an import trade from Gaul mentioned by Marcus Terentius Varro in his writings. [4]

The modern word "ham" is derived from the Old English ham or hom meaning the hollow or bend of the knee, from a Germanic base where it meant "crooked". It began to refer to the cut of pork derived from the hind leg of a pig around the 15th century. [6]

Because of the preservation process, ham is a compound foodstuff or ingredient, being made up of the original meat, as well as the remnants of the preserving agent(s), such as salt, but it is still recognised as a food in its own right. [7]


Ham is produced by curing raw pork by salting, also known as dry curing, or brining, also known as wet curing. Additionally, smoking may be employed, and seasonings may be added.


Sea salt being added to raw pork leg as part of a dry cure process ProsciuttoSeaSalt.JPG
Sea salt being added to raw pork leg as part of a dry cure process

Traditional dry cure hams may use only salt as the curative agent, such as with San Daniele or Parma hams, although this is comparatively rare. [8] This process involves cleaning the raw meat, covering it in salt while it is gradually pressed draining all the blood. Specific herbs and spices may be used to add flavour during this step. The hams are then washed and hung in a dark, temperature-regulated place until dry. It is then hung to air for another period of time.

The duration of the curing process varies by the type of ham. For example, Jinhua ham takes approximately 8 to 10 months to complete, [9] Serrano ham cures in 9–12 months, Parma ham takes more than 12 months, and Iberian ham can take up to 2 years to reach the desired flavor characteristics. [10]

Most modern dry cure hams also use nitrites (either sodium nitrite or potassium nitrite), which are added along with the salt. Nitrites are used because they prevent bacterial growth and, in a reaction with the meat's myoglobin, give the product a desirable dark red color. The amount and mixture of salt and nitrites used have an effect on the shrinkage of the meat. [11] Because of the toxicity of nitrite, some areas specify a maximum allowable content of nitrite in the final product. Under certain conditions, especially during cooking, nitrites in meat can react with degradation products of amino acids, forming nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens. [12]

The dry curing of ham involves a number of enzymatic reactions. The enzymes involved are proteinases (cathepsinsB, D, H & L, and calpains) and exopeptidases (peptidase and aminopeptidase). [13] These enzymes cause proteolysis of muscle tissue, which creates large numbers of small peptides and free amino acids, while the adipose tissue undergoes lipolysis to create free fatty acids. [13] Salt and phosphates act as strong inhibitors of proteolytic activity. [14] Animal factors influencing enzymatic activity include age, weight, and breed. [15] During the process itself, conditions such as temperature, duration, water content, redox potential, and salt content all have an effect on the meat. [13]

The salt content in dry-cured ham varies throughout a piece of meat, with gradients determinable through sampling and testing or non-invasively through CT scanning. [16]

Dry-cured ham is usually eaten without being cooked. [17]


Wet-cured hams are brined, which involves the immersion of the meat in a brine, sometimes with other ingredients such as sugar also added for flavour. The meat is typically kept in the brine for around 3 to 14 days. [8] Wet curing also has the effect of increasing volume and weight of the finished product, by about 4%.

The wet curing process can also be achieved by pumping the curing solution into the meat. This can be quicker, increase the weight of the finished product by more than immersion, and ensure a more even distribution of salt through the meat. This process is quicker than traditional brining, normally being completed in a few days. [18]

Wet-cured ham is usually cooked, either during processing, or after ageing. [19] [20]

The Italian version of cooked, wet-cured ham is called prosciutto cotto, as are similar hams made outside Italy. [21] [22] [23] It is first brined, then cooked in a container and finally surface pasteurized. Italian regulations allow it to contain salt, nitrites, sugar, dextrose, fructose, lactose, maltodextrin, milk protein, soy protein, natural or modified starches, spices, gelatin, and flavorings. [24]


Ham can also be additionally preserved through smoking, in which the meat is placed in a smokehouse (or equivalent) to be cured by the action of smoke.

The main flavor compounds of smoked ham are guaiacol, and its 4-, 5-, and 6-methyl derivatives as well as 2,6-dimethylphenol. These compounds are produced by combustion of lignin, a major constituent of wood used in the smokehouse. [25]


Hams aging in an atmospherically controlled storage room in Mazerolles, Bearn, Pyrenees-Atlantiques Making Jambon de Bayonne--Step 4.jpg
Hams aging in an atmospherically controlled storage room in Mazerolles, Béarn, Pyrénées-Atlantiques

In many countries the term is now protected by statute, with a specific definition. For instance, in the United States, the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) says that "the word 'ham', without any prefix indicating the species of animal from which derived, shall be used in labeling only in connection with the hind legs of swine". [26]

In addition to the main categories, some processing choices can affect legal labeling. For instance, in the United States, a "smoked" ham must have been smoked by hanging over burning wood chips in a smokehouse or an atomized spray of liquid smoke such that the product appearance is equivalent; a "hickory-smoked" ham must have been smoked using only hickory. However, injecting "smoke flavor" is not legal grounds for claiming the ham was "smoked"; these are labeled "smoke flavor added". Hams can only be labeled "honey-cured" if honey was at least 50% of the sweetener used, is at least 3% of the formula, and has a discernible effect on flavor. So-called "lean" and "extra lean" hams must adhere to maximum levels of fat and cholesterol per 100 grams of product.

Whole fresh pork leg can be labeled as fresh ham in the United States.

Protected designations

A number of hams worldwide have some level of protection of their unique characteristics, usually relating to their method of preservation or location of production or processing. Dependent on jurisdiction, rules may prevent any other product being sold with the particular appellation, such as through the European protected geographical indication.


A platter of ham and cheese sliced for sandwiches 850 food.JPG
A platter of ham and cheese sliced for sandwiches
A Finnish Christmas ham Christmas ham.jpg
A Finnish Christmas ham

Ham is typically used in its sliced form, often as a filling for sandwiches and similar foods, such as in the ham sandwich and ham and cheese sandwich. Other variations include toasted sandwiches such as the croque-monsieur and the Cubano. It is also a popular topping for pizza in the United States.

In the United Kingdom, a pork leg cut, either whole or sliced, that has been cured but requires additional cooking is known as gammon. Gammons were traditional cured before being cut from a side of pork along with bacon. When cooked, gammon is ham. Such roasts are a traditional part of British Christmas dinners.

Health effects

As a processed meat, there has been concern over the health effects of ham consumption. [31] A meta-analysis study from 2012 has shown a statistically relevant correlation between processed meat consumption and the risk of pancreatic cancer, with an increase in consumption of 50 grams (1.8 oz) per day leading to a 19% increase in risk. [32]

This supported earlier studies, including the 2007 study "Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective", by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research, [33] which reviewed more than 7,000 studies published worldwide. [34] Among the recommendations was that, except for very rare occasions, people should avoid eating ham or other processed meats – cured, smoked, salted or chemically preserved meat products such as bacon, hot dogs, sausage, [35] salami, [36] and pastrami. The report states that once an individual reaches the 510 grams (18 oz) weekly limit for red meat, every 48 grams (1.7 oz) of processed meat consumed a day increases cancer risk by 21%. [34]

A European cohort study from 2013 also positively correlated processed meat consumption with higher all-cause mortality, with an estimation that 3.3% of the deaths amongst participants could have been prevented by consuming an average of less than 20 grams (0.71 oz) of processed meat per day over the course of the study. [37]

See also

Related Research Articles

Bacon Type of salt-cured pork

Bacon is a type of salt-cured pork made from various cuts, typically the belly or less fatty parts of the back. It is eaten as a side dish, used as a central ingredient (e.g., the bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, or as a flavouring or accent.

Salami Cured sausage, fermented and air-dried meat

Salami is a cured sausage consisting of fermented and air-dried meat, typically pork. Historically, salami was popular among Southern, Eastern, and Central European peasants because it can be stored at room temperature for up to 40 days once cut, supplementing a potentially meager or inconsistent supply of fresh meat. Countries and regions across Europe make their own traditional varieties of salami.

Smoked salmon Form of salmon preparation

Smoked salmon is a preparation of salmon, typically a fillet that has been cured and hot or cold smoked.

Sodium nitrite Chemical compound

Sodium nitrite is an inorganic compound with the chemical formula NaNO2. It is a white to slightly yellowish crystalline powder that is very soluble in water and is hygroscopic. From an industrial perspective, it is the most important nitrite salt. It is a precursor to a variety of organic compounds, such as pharmaceuticals, dyes, and pesticides, but it is probably best known as a food additive used in processed meats and (in some countries) in fish products.

Lunch meat Precooked or cured meats that are sliced and served cold or hot

Lunch meats—also known as cold cuts, luncheon meats, cooked meats, sliced meats, cold meats, and deli meats—are precooked or cured meats that are sliced and served cold or hot. They are typically served in sandwiches or on a tray. They can be purchased pre-sliced, usually in vacuum packs, or they can be sliced to order.

Prosciutto Italian dry-cured ham that is thinly sliced and served uncooked

Prosciutto crudo, in English often shortened to prosciutto, is Italian uncooked, unsmoked, and dry-cured ham. Prosciutto crudo is usually served thinly sliced.

Smoked meat Type of prepared meat

Smoked meat is the result of a method of preparing red meat, white meat, and seafood which originated in the Paleolithic Era. Smoking adds flavor, improves the appearance of meat through the Maillard reaction, and when combined with curing it preserves the meat. When meat is cured then cold-smoked, the smoke adds phenols and other chemicals that have an antimicrobial effect on the meat. Hot smoking has less impact on preservation and is primarily used for taste and to slow-cook the meat. Interest in barbecue and smoking is on the rise worldwide.

Salt-cured meat Meat or fish preserved or cured with salt

Salt-cured meat or salted meat is meat or fish preserved or cured with salt. Salting, either with dry salt or brine, was a common method of preserving meat until the middle of the 20th century, becoming less popular after the advent of refrigeration. It was frequently called "junk" or "salt horse". One early method of salt-curing meat was corning, or applying large, coarse pellets of salt, which were rubbed into the meat to keep it from spoiling and to preserve it. This term originates from Old English and references the large corns or grains of salt used. Corned beef retains this name, although it is typically brined today.

Pancetta Italian bacon made of pork belly meat

Pancetta is a salt-cured pork belly salume. In Italy, it is often used to add depth to soups and pastas.

Processed meat Type of meat

Processed meat is considered to be any meat which has been modified in order to either improve its taste or to extend its shelf life. Methods of meat processing include salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, and/or the addition of chemical preservatives. Processed meat is usually composed of pork or beef, but also poultry, while it can also contain offal or meat by-products such as blood. Processed meat products include bacon, ham, sausages, salami, corned beef, jerky, hot dogs, lunch meat, canned meat, chicken nuggets, and meat-based sauces. Meat processing includes all the processes that change fresh meat with the exception of simple mechanical processes such as cutting, grinding or mixing.

Jamón Spanish dry-cured ham

Jamón is a kind of dry-cured ham produced in Spain. It is one of the most globally recognized food items of Spanish cuisine. It is also regularly a component of tapas.

Charcuterie Branch of cooking of prepared meat products, primarily from pork

Charcuterie is a French term for a branch of cooking devoted to prepared meat products, such as bacon, ham, sausage, terrines, galantines, ballotines, pâtés, and confit, primarily from pork.

Black Forest ham German meat preparation

Black Forest ham is a variety of dry-cured smoked ham produced in the Black Forest region of Germany.

Curing salt

Curing salt is used in meat processing to generate a pinkish shade and to extend shelf life. It is both a color agent and a means to facilitate food preservation as it prevents or slows spoilage by bacteria or fungus. Curing salts are generally a mixture of sodium chloride and sodium nitrite, and are used for pickling meats as part of the process to make sausage or cured meat such as ham, bacon, pastrami, corned beef, etc. Though it has been suggested that the reason for using nitrite-containing curing salt is to prevent botulism, a 2018 study by the British Meat Producers Association determined that legally permitted levels of nitrite have no effect on the growth of the Clostridium botulinum bacteria that causes botulism, in line with the UK’s Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food opinion that nitrites are not required to prevent C. botulinum growth and extend shelf life..

Curing (food preservation) Food preservation and flavouring processes based on drawing moisture out of the food by osmosis

Curing is any of various food preservation and flavoring processes of foods such as meat, fish and vegetables, by the addition of salt, with the aim of drawing moisture out of the food by the process of osmosis. Because curing increases the solute concentration in the food and hence decreases its water potential, the food becomes inhospitable for the microbe growth that causes food spoilage. Curing can be traced back to antiquity, and was the primary method of preserving meat and fish until the late-19th century. Dehydration was the earliest form of food curing. Many curing processes also involve smoking, spicing, cooking, or the addition of combinations of sugar, nitrate, and nitrite.

Salumi Italian cured meat products predominantly made from pork

Salumi are Italian cured meat products made predominantly from pork. Salumi include bresaola, which is made from beef, and also cooked products such as mortadella and prosciutto cotto.

Cured fish Fish subjected to fermentation, pickling or smoking

Cured fish is fish which has been cured by subjecting it to fermentation, pickling, smoking, or some combination of these before it is eaten. These food preservation processes can include adding salt, nitrates, nitrite or sugar, can involve smoking and flavoring the fish, and may include cooking it. The earliest form of curing fish was dehydration. Other methods, such as smoking fish or salt-curing also go back for thousands of years. The term "cure" is derived from the Latin curare, meaning to take care of. It was first recorded in reference to fish in 1743.

Cured pork tenderloin Meat delicacy

Cured pork tenderloin is found in various cuisines in Mediterranean Europe and South America. It is typically salted or brined then dry-cured or smoked.


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