What is ham?


In the Australian dialect, ham is always made of pork, and either pickled and smoked or treated to taste as though it has been pickled and smoked. ‘Proper’ ham is cut from the leg, but there exists also ‘shoulder ham’.

I was therefore a little taken aback when an American correspondent wrote of eating ‘fresh ham’, by which it turned out that she meant what I would call ‘roast leg of pork’. When I turned to my trusty Webster I found that it documented her usage but not mine. ‘Ham’ is a cut of meat consisting of the thigh, especially of a hog. There is no mention of pickling and smoking in the definition of any sense.

Is this right? Do the Americans and British (and perhaps every Australian I have never spoken to) not understand, when one speaks of ham, that it is (truly or faux) pickled and smoked? Do you all refer to a fresh leg of pork as ham? How did I go for thirty-eat years without realising that an American ham sandwich might contain fresh roast pork?


Ham is usually smoked. If you cook a fresh ham it’s just cooked pork.

There are two main usages, “ham” and “a ham”

“ham” refers to cured pork. It can be smoked, sugar cured or brined. Originally, cuts of pork were turned into ham to preserve the meat for a longer period.

“a ham” refers to a cured pork shoulder or leg joint.

If she ate “a ham” she had a roast, cured leg of pork, or she smoked or barbecued a joint of fresh pork (though this isn’t really “ham”)

Speaking of “fresh ham” and meaning uncured pork is an error in usage, to my mind.
To me, “fresh ham” means a new package of cured pork from the deli.


I think fresh ham is just a euphamism for leg of pork. I have rarely come across the term, but when I do I know that what portion of the pig it comes from. Rest assured if you are ever offered a ham sandwich it will be a smoked ham (or cured) product

Does “ham” ever refer to smoked turkey?

Does this help? My English-language edition of Larousse Gastronomique would give you all a blue ribbon, except Z-AI. :wink:

“HAM, JAMBON - Strictly, a ham is a leg of pork, salted and smoked. In current usage [1977], however, this term is also applied to the shoulder of the pig that is cured in the same fashion.
In French cookery, the term jambon not only means ham, but also applies to a leg of fresh pork.”

And then it goes on and on and on for two more full pages. Credit is given to the Gauls, “Great devotees of the pig meat,” for codifying HAM as we know it today. The books says nice things about American hams.

However, “Boiled ham brought commercially, tinted pink by the addition of potassium nitrate, is better avoided.”

It also has more than a full page about various types of “hash,” in case you thought that was low-class army man food.

Oh, and the 2003 edition says the same thing, just not with such lovely words.

Dictionary makers regard “ham” as the “a cut of meat consisting of a thigh: esp : one from a hog.” (Collegiate). I think that ham in stores is labeled cured ham, or smoked ham, or words to that effect. I intend to go to the grocery store tomorrow and check.

A shoulder ham is usually called a “picnic ham” in the USA.

Boy, if only those dictionary makers could codify what constitued “bacon” to each country over the last hundred or more years, I’d sure be indebted. :eek:

Well why is a bad actor/actress referred to as ham?

Could it be because they usually look like pigs?

I can confirm that the difference between “ham” and “a ham” are the same in the UK – ham being cured or smoked pork and a ham being a leg of pork, whether cured/smoked or not.

By default “ham” served on a sandwich or bought from the delicatessen would be the simple brine-cured version. Smoked ham, or special cured versions would be named in full, e.g. “Smoked Wiltshire Cured Ham” or “Honeyroast Ham”.

If the meat hasn’t been treated in any particular way before you cook it, it’s just called leg of pork.

I have seen cured turkey advertised as turkey ham or turkey bacon.

Yes and no. “Turkey ham” and “beef bacon” are kosher and/or halal substitutes for pork. But you wouldn’t ever ask for just “ham” and expect turkey.

Merriam-Webster says that it is…

It gives the same origin for a radio ham (i.e. a licensed operator of an amateur radio station).

Don’t forget salt-cured hams such as prosciutto and parma.

The use of “ham” as a shorthand for “cured ham” comes from the still valid AND CORRECT use of “ham” to refer to “thigh”. If it’s not a thigh, it’s not a ham, except for the ignorant. If it’s shoulder from a pig, then it’s either “butt” or “picnic”. Yes, a pork butt is actually its shoulder. (Cf Joy of Cooking.)

As for the curing of hams, there are several methods.

First, the low-grade “city” ham is cured by injecting with brine.
Other hams are cured by immersion in brine for some time. This might or might not be followed by smoking.
Finally, the true aristocrats of hams are the dry-cured hams. These include prosciutto di Parma (“parma” is a TYPE of prosciutto), Serrano hams, and the American country ham. This process might or might not involve smoking, but let nobody claim that all American country hams are smoked. Only the ignorant believe this. It is very common to smoke hams in the American style, but it is not universal.

I agree with this and other similar posts. I know that a “ham” may, by definition, simply be a cut of pig; but I’ve found that it’s always used to mean the smoked or cured product. If a ham is not cured or smoked, then it’s called “pork”.

(Of course, this is a big country and regional uses may vary.)

Question about prosciutto: How fo you use it? I’ve had it in things I’ve ordered at a restaurant, but I don’t remember what they were. How do you use it at home? I assume that you can just open the packet and make a sandwich of it, or maybe cook it in an alfredo sauce or something.

Wow: a while ago I cooked, from a recipe off the net, a coca-cola ham - the one with cloves in the skin and molasses and coke. It was very salty - tasty but too salty.

I just realised reading this that instead of cooking a ham as I know it (cured leg of pork) I should have used an uncured leg of pork.

Makes me feel like a ham.

Yes, in much the same sense that the electronic keyboard instrument that makes sounds approximating those of a pipe organ is an “electronic organ.”

The thigh of a turkey cured and having a strong resemblance to that of a pig is “turkey ham” – i.e., a meat product strongly similar to (porcine) ham but extracted from a turkey.

Sometimes you need to soak an uncookied ham to leach out the salt - soak for a minimum of 3 hours, changing the water every hour.

That recipe’s absolutely beautiful normally!

When I cook country ham, (and I get it from a small curehouse near Fancy Gap, Virginia, none of that big-city-corporate “country” ham for me), I soak it at least overnight, changing the water at least once.

Ideally, I begin the soak of an evening, change the water the next morning, change the water in the evening, begin to very slowly simmer (in fresh water) the following morning.