Published November 1, 2007. From Cook's Illustrated.
Half, whole, butt, shank, bone-in, or boneless: Which supermarket option produces the juiciest, most tender ham?
A well-stocked supermarket can offer as many as a dozen different kinds of ham to choose from, not to mention the many different brands out there. It made perfect sense to sort matters out. Because there are so many kinds of supermarket ham to choose from, the editors at Cook's agreed that an initial blind tasting that compared different types of hams would be more useful than just rating various brands. To understand how supermarket hams can differ, you need to know just what constitutes a ham, how it is made, and how differences in processing translate into differences in labels.
Starting with the elementary, a ham is, by definition, a pig's hind leg that typically has been cured and/or smoked for preservation and flavor. Curing, one of the oldest forms of meat preservation, was originally done by rubbing salt into the meat or packing the meat in barrels of salt. Eventually, it was discovered that curing with a brine—a solution of water, sugar, and salt-was faster and made for a more flavorful product. Nowadays supermarket hams are simply injected with a brine solution that is often used more for flavor than preservation (nitrites are added for preserving) and can even include smoke flavor, thus replacing another traditional step in the ham-making process. Almost all supermarket hams are sold fully cooked and are so labeled.
A whole ham tends to be massive—weighing about 15 pounds. So, for manageability, hams are increasingly cut in half and sold in two pieces, the butt and the shank. Whether half or whole, though, the differences in supermarket hams come down to what bones, if any, have been removed and how much water, if any, has been added.
Of course hams can be sold with the bone left in. There are also semiboned hams, in which the aitchbone (pronounced H-bone), a bone from the pelvis, and the knuckle are removed for easier carving, leaving only the round leg bone. For easier carving yet, ham manufacturers came up with boneless hams, which are sold in cylindrical loaf shapes of various sizes.
All of these forms of ham vary in terms of the amount of water added during the curing process. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, if the finished product -- after curing, smoking, and/or cooking -- exceeds the original weight of the ham, known as the green weight, it must be labeled in accordance with the amount of water that has been added: • A ham that has no added water is labeled just plain "ham." While some manufacturers still make these hams, they can be very hard to find in supermarkets, particularly at times other than the holidays. • "Ham with natural juices" (as the label would state) has 7 to 8 percent water added. • Ham—"water added"— has 12 to 15 percent water added • Ham and Water Product" contains more than 15 percent added water. The more water a ham contains, the less expensive it is per pound. The flip side is that you can end up paying for more than a pound of water when buying a seven-pound "ham and water product."
The tasting results for our first test were almost predictable: more bone and less water seemed to make for the tastiest hams. The reason why the hams with natural juices were preferred to those with water added—or with so much water added that the ham is called a "water product"— seemed readily apparent. The more water, the more diluted the ham flavor and the more chemical and "off" the hams tended to taste.
Hams do not naturally hold water. The two proteins that make up the muscles of a ham, actin and myosin, bind together to form a complex protein known as actomyosin. Actomyosin is not water-soluble, but it is salt-soluble. Thus ham manufacturers must inject sodium phosphate into supermarket hams to enable the muscles to retain water. The advantage of this treatment can be that a ham does not end up completely dehydrated after processing. The disadvantage, however, is that the ham can be so pumped up with water that it takes on an unpalatably damp, spongy texture and a watered-down flavor. This was the case with all of the "water product" hams and, to a lesser degree, the "ham" water added" products.
The other key finding was that hams seem to be better off when the bone is left in. While there is all sorts of speculation as to why keeping the bone contributes to flavor, the reasons for this have not been scientifically ascertained. But maybe the problem is with boneless hams. As convenient as it might be to carve a boneless ham, the downside is that boneless hams must be subjected to a lot of processing so that the loose pieces of meat pulled from the bone will hold together. Some boneless hams consist of large pieces of muscle that are sectioned and formed.
Boneless hams can also consist of ground meat that is injected with salt so that the proteins dissolve and then coagulate and bind together while being tumbled and kneaded into a ham form. This inevitably changes the original texture of the meat. In accordance, our tasters' biggest quibble with the boneless hams, as well as the semiboned, was that they lacked the texture of "real" ham. At best, it was reminiscent of Canadian bacon. "Compressed" and "processed" were also common terms of complaint.
When all was said and done, it was the spiral-sliced ham with natural juices that stood out as the best ham to buy. It is neither overly pumped up with water nor packed into a cylindrical loaf shape. And for the test kitchen staff, who had to carve all of the hams before the tasting, it was hands-down the most convenient of the bone-in hams.
At their best, spiral-sliced hams balance sweet, smoky, and salty flavors with a firm, moist texture. Assuming you buy the same cut, does brand matter? To find out, we prepared three nationally available brands of honey- or brown sugar-cured hams.
Tasters' preferences approached unanimity. Falling hard to the bottom, the losing ham lost points on two accounts: Tasters described the meat as "utterly devoid of smoke flavor" and "spongy and cottony," and no one liked the "sweet, gummy" glaze applied at the factory. The second thickly sliced contestant earned high marks for its "deep, smoky flavor," but tasters criticized the meat as "too wet" and "too sweet." Nearly every taster, however praised the "nice balance of smoke and salt" and "genuine ham flavor" in our winner.