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Deli Ham and Turkey

By Cook's Illustrated Published May 2004

Supermarkets offer a baffling assortment of packaged meats, but do any of them hold a candle to sliced-to-order deli meats?

We began this tasting with a dozen widely available presliced ham and turkey products, most costing about $2 for a 6-ounce package. All were categorically rejected by tasters. Things improved at the deli counter.

Deli Turkey

At the deli counter, we purchased six national brands of sliced-to-order turkey breast. Tasters liked Sara Lee's Oven Roasted Turkey Breast ($6.50 per pound), describing it as "moist," "meaty," and "honest," but the house brand produced by Stop & Shop ($6.50 per pound), a local supermarket chain, ranked just as highly. Also included in the lineup was an in-store roasted turkey breast ($10 per pound) purchased from a Whole Foods Market, which—to our surprise—tasters rejected as bland and incredibly dry. Why did "real" turkey perform so poorly? Processed turkey breast is injected with water, salt, and seasonings. Because turkey breast meat is naturally dry, some extra moisture is desirable--even necessary--to produce a palatable product.

Deli Ham

The processing of deli ham is more involved than that of deli turkey, making the choices more confusing. "Boiled" hams are forced into a mold before being cooked, and the gaps are filled in with an emulsified puree of water, fat, and pork trimmings. These hams, easily identifiable by their rectangular shape and pale pink exterior, are generally cheaper than baked or smoked hams, but tasters disliked their wet, plastic texture.

Baked or smoked hams are generally injected with salt, water, and phosphates but retain the texture of a real ham. At the deli counter, these hams sport an impressive variety of labels, including baked, smoked, Virginia, maple, Black Forest, and honey. What the names really indicate, however, is merely the particular flavoring blend that has been injected into the ham. We tasted seven hams in this category and uncovered a wide variety of flavors—some sweet, some smoky, some spicy—but most of the samples were quite good. Baked ham costs a bit more than boiled ham, but the money is well spent.