Before you learn about the differences between cured and uncured ham, let’s first understand their meaning.
Cured Ham Meaning
If you’re wondering about what cured ham is, you’ve come to the right place. Cured ham is a very popular choice because of its amazing taste. The unique curing process is what gives the cured ham its bold flavor.
There are two ways to cure ham. You should know if the ham you purchase is dry-cured or wet cured, as this will make a big difference in how you cook, serve, and store the ham. To help you understand food handling safety and protocols, let’s take a look at the difference between dry-cured and wet cured ham and see what that means for you.
Dry Cured Ham
As the name implies, dry-cured ham is cured without water. The ham is preserved by burying it in fresh sea salt or rubbing it with salt and other spices, including black pepper and sugar. Then the ham is hung up to dry for a long period. This dehydrates the ham, making it even drier. It’s then smoked to intensify the flavor. You can serve dry-cured ham is served uncooked. One great example of dry-cured ham is Prosciutto di Parma.
Cured ham can remain fresh and safe in the refrigerator for anywhere from 3 days to 3 months.
Wet Cured Ham
This type of ham is cured using a sea salt and water mixture called brine. You can also add other ingredients to the brine, including sugar, nitrites, liquid smoke, and other flavorings. Wet cured ham is what most people eat and are familiar with. Read the label of your ham for safe cooking and handling instructions—some are sold uncooked while some are precooked and ready to eat.
Ready-to-eat hams, including prosciutto and cooked hams, can be eaten straight out of the package.
Uncured Ham Meaning
Uncured ham is also referred to as fresh ham. It’s the same cut as cured, but without the brine and other flavorings used in common city hams and gourmet country hams. It also has a light pink or grey color, as you’d expect in uncooked meat. It requires extra preparation and cooking time than cured ham. Here’s a good explanation of cured and uncured meat types.
You could say that uncured hams are a healthier alternative. Many are labeled natural or organic. And with uncured hams, you won’t get any of the nitrites or nitrates used in cured hams. Fresh hams are far less salty, even if you brine the ham yourself.
Cured meat uses strong chemical preservatives, while uncured meat uses natural preservatives. However, these distinctions are less useful than they seem. Here’s where you can learn more about the differences between cured and uncured meat.
Cured Ham vs. Uncured Ham – Key Differences
Cured ham can easily be distinguished from uncured ham by its texture, color, and aroma. The salting process leaves the muscle fibers a lot denser than before, as proteins in the ham contract. This is why cured ham’s texture is different from the texture of a pork roast, even though two cuts come from the same animal source. The distinctive red color of cured meats is also immediately recognizable, differing from the pale color of uncured pork. Most important, cured hams possess deep and complex flavors created by bacteria, yeasts, and enzymes during the curing process.
Can you eat uncured ham?
You might be wondering if the uncured ham is safe to eat, and the short answer is yes. Uncured ham is still cured, just in a more natural way. Upon reaching the consumer, most uncured meat has been properly cooked. This means that all you have to do is throw your ham in the oven, warm it to your desired temperature and serve it.
Many people believe that uncured ham is a healthier alternative. Many are labeled natural or organic, meaning that you won’t get synthetically-sourced nitrates used in many cured hams.
What are the Health Risks of Uncured Hams?
Does cured or uncured ham involve higher health risks? When purchasing ham and other meats, it’s important to read all labels. First, you’ll have to understand that nitrates and nitrites are not the same. Your body can convert nitrates into nitrites, which your stomach then converts into nitrosamines. Nitrosamine is a known carcinogen and has often been linked to cancer.
The good thing about uncured hams is that they are cured using organic ingredients such as celery, beets, and salt. While several vegetables still contain nitrates, Vitamin C found in those vegetables prevents these nitrites from being turned into nitrosamines.
We recommend choosing the uncured versions when shopping for cured or uncured ham. If anything, this will give you peace of mind knowing that your ham was not cured using chemicals. Plus, if you follow a diet and are wondering “is uncured ham keto” or “is ham paleo,” we’re happy to say that uncured ham is compliant with such lifestyles. Read the ingredient lists, get to know the brand, and choose options that are made to be flavorful and great for you!
How to Cure Ham Without Refrigeration
If you want to cure ham at home, here’s a short guide to help out. At some point in history, salt was more valuable than gold. That’s because it can prolong the shelf life of perishable foods. The centuries-old practice of curing meats with sea salt is simple to do and has been perfected to create some of our favorite and well-known cured meats, from prosciutto to pepperoni.
To dry cure ham with salt, cover it entirely in salt for a day. Ensure the ham is completely covered by filling a container with salt, placing the ham on top, and pouring more salt over until it’s buried. You can also add other flavorings like celery seed and black pepper if you want.
If you’re worried about wasting salt, there is another method you can try. First, weigh the ham. Apply 3% of that weight’s worth of sea salt onto the meat, covering thoroughly, and then use an electric vacuum sealer to seal everything up. This technique is known as “equilibrium curing.”
No matter which technique you choose, the basic result will be pretty much the same. Once the meat has had enough time to sit, you’ll notice the texture will change dramatically. It should become tougher and dryer.
Some Warning Signs
If you notice any foul odor at some point in the process, that means that salt wasn’t properly applied, and bacteria has begun to grow. There’s no real way to salvage ham after rot has begun, so if you find any foul odor, it should be discarded right away.
After the ham is somewhat dehydrated, you can start adding flavors! There are so many combinations of herbs and spices you can use to create signature cured meats, such as prosciutto. Simply remove the majority of the salt and coat the meat in your spice mixture.
How to Hang Cured Meat to Dry
Once you’ve applied salt and other spices, you can either wrap the ham in cheesecloth or simply tie it with a series of butcher knots. The basic idea is to keep the ham in a tidy shape that’ll be easy to cut while making sure that air can circulate around the entire piece.
So, as soon as you have things neatly tied, hang it until it’s done. Use a label maker to identify all different meats—including the start weight and goal weight.
How Long Would It Take to Salt Cure Ham?
The ham meat should lose 35-40% of its weight by the end of the curing process, and the only way to tell when the ham is finished curing is to weigh it. Here’s a formula you can use to find what the final weight should be:
Multiply beginning weight by 0.65 to get the final weight goal. The amount of time it takes for the ham to cure depends on the size of the meat. A small duck breast takes about 4-5 weeks. And large cuts of pork take several months.
After you’ve left enough time for curing and the process is complete, it’s time to enjoy your ham! Use a meat slicer to slice the ham meat into the thinnest pieces possible. You can put the cured ham on a sandwich or simply serve it on a board with fruits, cheeses, and homemade mustard or jam. The end result must have a chewy texture and a perfect amount of sea salt and spice.
Other Ingredients of a Cure
Salt provides the crucial ingredient in cured hams, as it disrupts the cellular activity of bacteria that otherwise cause spoilage or illness. Sugar can reduce the salt’s harshness and act as a preservative. Cured hams are often smoked as well, which helps prevent rancidity. The other crucial ingredient in most cured meats is nitrates or nitrites. These give cured meats a rosy color and provide them with their signature flavors.