Ham is a type of salt-cured meat that is smoked or air-dried. It’s a popular food around the world and a staple ingredient in many cuisines. Read on for 15 fun and fascinating facts about this tasty meat!
A Brief History
- Ham has been produced and eaten for centuries. There is evidence that the Chinese were salting pork legs as early as 5000 B.C.
- Ham was brought to Europe by Roman invaders who learned meat preservation techniques from the Chinese. The name “ham” comes from the Old English term for the hollow or bend of the knee, which is where ham is cut from the leg.
- In America, ham became popular because it was easy to produce and could be preserved for long periods without refrigeration, making it an ideal food for early settlers, soldiers, and travelers venturing west.
Types of Ham
There are many varieties of ham available today:
- Country ham – Dry-cured and smoked for long periods, giving an intense ham flavor. These are specialty hams produced in places like Virginia and Kentucky.
- Prosciutto – An Italian-style dry cured ham that is usually sliced very thin. Prosciutto di Parma is a famous premium version.
- Smoked ham – Typically sold pre-cooked or “ready to eat”. Includes hams like Black Forest ham.
- City ham – Mildly cured with a lower salt content. The type of ham most people eat for breakfast or on sandwiches.
- Ham is a good source of protein. A 3-ounce serving provides about 20 grams of protein.
- It also provides vitamins and minerals like niacin, vitamin B6, phosphorus, and zinc.
- However, ham can be high in sodium. Some processed types contain over 1,000 mg sodium per serving.
- Ham contains a mix of fat – around half is unhealthy saturated fat, half healthy unsaturated fat.
15 Fascinating Ham Facts
Now onto the fun stuff! Here are 15 intriguing facts about one of the world’s most iconic foods:
- Hams can be gigantic – Some specialty or “country cure” hams weigh as much as a person! Jamón Ibérico hams can weigh over 10 pounds.
- There’s a ham hall of fame – The Johnston County Ham Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina claims to be the only museum in the world dedicated to ham. It features exhibits on ham history, production, and curing/aging methods.
- Pigs have poor sweat glands – This helps their meat stay firmer and less likely to spoil, one reason why pork products like ham became popular before refrigeration.
- Italians take ham seriously – In Parma, Italy, the traditional production of Prosciutto di Parma ham is strictly monitored. The pigs are fed special diets and the ham curing takes over a year!
- Hams age like fine wine – Some specialty hams are aged 12 months to 3 years. This intensifies their flavor and allows natural enzymatic processes to make the meat more tender.
- There are poisonous hams – Prosciutto di Parma is safe because the pigs eat a controlled diet. But in parts of Europe, boars eat poisonous acorns that can ruin their meat with toxins if not specially treated.
- Honey glazed ham has a royal fan – Queen Elizabeth II of England reportedly enjoys a spiral-cut, honey-glazed ham every Christmas.
- Astronauts eat space ham – Ham’s preserved properties allowed it to be used in early space flight food. NASA developed bite-sized cubes of ham for John Glenn’s space mission.
- America ❤️ ham – Americans consume the most ham per capita globally. Over 20 pounds of ham products are eaten per person per year in the U.S.
- Pink salt creates ham’s color – Ingredients like sodium nitrite react with pigments in ham over time, forming a characteristic pink tinge.
- Ham Led to Medical Advances – B-vitamins were first discovered by studying disease patterns in children who ate Dutch processed ham.
- Ham in the Olympics?! – In the early 1900s, Olympians ate ham sandwiches with brandy to boost performance. Not quite performance enhancing drugs!
- Pigs are clean animals – Despite the saying “sweating like a pig”, pigs don’t sweat much. This makes their meat less likely to go bad.
- Shakespeare mentioned ham – In several of his works including Henry IV Part 2, Shakespeare referenced “gammon”, an old English term for cured ham.
- Spam isn’t ham?! – The canned meat SPAM is sometimes confused with ham but doesn’t meet the legal definition. SPAM contains pork shoulder rather than ham cuts.
Frequently Asked Questions About Ham
Still curious? Check out answers to some other common questions.
Is ham considered red meat or white meat?
While you may think all pork is white meat, ham is classified as red meat by the USDA because of its high myoglobin content. This iron-containing protein is what makes beef and other meats red.
What is the healthiest way to cook ham?
Baking ham allows the fat to drip away, making it healthier than frying. Look for leaner ham cuts with less visible marbling. Avoid adding breading or sugary glazes. Grilling or pan-searing can also cook ham more healthily.
What happens if I eat ham while pregnant? Is deli meat safe?
Cold cuts like deli ham may harbor Listeria bacteria, which can cause pregnancy complications. Reheating deli ham to 165°F kills any Listeria making it safer for pregnant women. A better choice is to pick a precooked ham.
Can ham be eaten raw?
No, the ham should always be thoroughly cooked before eating to kill harmful bacteria that could cause foodborne illness. Prosciutto and similar dry-cured raw hams are safe because of salt levels and 12+ months of natural aging.
How long does ham last in the fridge or freezer?
An unopened ham pack has a maximum shelf life. Once opened, whole bone-in ham lasts 3-5 days refrigerated. Sliced ham or ham lunchmeat lasts about 3-7 days. For freezing, ham slices can keep 6 months while an unopened ham remains safe for 1-2 years frozen. Always check for spoilage signs before eating.