Ham is pork. But pork doesn’t necessarily have to be ham. Take a peek below to find out why.
The difference between ham and pork may be obvious to the neighborhood butcher or seasoned chef. It is admittedly less so to the novice cook.
Whether you’ve just started cooking or have a new-found interest in curing meat, we have the information you need to sate your hunger for knowledge. If ham vs. pork is the question—and you’re here, so it probably is—all answers you’re looking for are below.
Pork is a blanket term for the meat of the pig as a whole. Ham, on the other hand, is a pork product from the hind leg of a pig and the butt. There are many cuts of pork meat; there are also many types ham—some preserved by wet or dry curing, some smoked and others not.
The main difference between ham and pork, then, is that “ham” is a named cut of pork with a specific preparation method, whereas “pork” stands for any part of the pig, which, depending on the recipe and cooking technique, can be prepared in many different ways.
Pork: Things to Know
Pork is the flesh of the domestic pig. Meaty, filling, and flavorsome, pork is the centerpiece of many meals in the American household.
The pig, colloquially called “hog” or “swine,” is the all-eating, domesticated animal of the genus Sus. A few centuries ago, people raised and slaughtered their own pigs in their backyards. Those days are long gone, and today most of us get our pork from butcher shops or grocery stores that source it from farms and slaughterhouses.
Different cuts of pork are sold at the butcher’s and grocer’s, and they can come from different breeds:
The three most common breeds in the United States, according to Pork Checkoff, are Yorkshire, Duroc, and Berkshire. These are touted for their fast growth, lean meat, and distinctive flavor.
The cuts are diverse and numerous. There’s the butt, the loin, the shank, the ribs, the hock, the jowl. They make for steaks, chops, streaky bacon, roasts, sausage links, and—you guessed it—ham, to name a few.
Thin cuts, like steaks and chops, cook quickly. They tolerate high heat and haste in the kitchen, and they come out their best when pan-fried, broiled, or grilled. Thick cuts, say, a roast or whole ham, ought to be cooked low and slow. For these reasons, they taste their best when slow-roasted or smoked.
Different cooking methods apply when preparing pork. On the stove are searing, frying, and deep-frying. In the oven are baking, roasting, and broiling. When it comes to outdoor cooking, there’s grilling, over direct and indirect heat, and smoking. Both infuse the meat with smoky flavors.
Ham: Things to Know
“Ham” stands for the cut of pork that comes from the pig’s hind leg and butt. There are many types of ham out there, and their use is limited only by the imagination of the home cook and the family members at the table.
Fresh ham is ham that hasn’t been cooked or cured yet. It’s basically raw pork and, as such, it must be cooked or undergo a curing process to make it palatable and safe to eat. (As any raw meat product, fresh ham can contain harmful bacteria and requires treatment.)
Cured ham is ham that’s gone through a preservation process that retains the meat’s nutritional contents, extends its shelf life, and gives it a unique flavor. Cured ham, depending on how it’s prepared, falls into one of two categories: dry-cured or wet-cured.
Dry-cured ham is buried in salt, then hung to air-dry for months. The salt preserves the meat and intensifies its flavor. The air-drying, on the other hand, causes the ham to lose much of its moisture, which makes it last longer.
Prosciutto, for example, is a popular choice of dry-cured ham. It’s seldom cooked. Instead, it’s eaten raw on top of salads, pizza pies, and bruschetta breads.
Wet-cured ham is brined in salt, sugar, herbs, spices, and broth, then cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F and above. Thanks to the brine, wet-cured ham retains its moisture. The cooking makes it flavorful and kills bacteria.
Paris ham is a common choice of wet-cured ham. Brined in a flavorful broth and slow-cooked to tenderness, this type of ham retains its moisture and soaks up the wonderful flavors of the broth during cooking. It can be eaten as a snack on its own or cooked, for example, for cullis or omelet.
Smoked ham is ham that’s been exposed to the smoldering wood. The steady stream of bluish smoke caresses the meat and gives it a smoky flavor. The ham can be cold-smoked, hung in the air and smoked at 60°F for weeks, or thrown into a 250°F smoker for half a day until cooked through.
Shopping for Pork
Fresh pork is available in a wide range of breeds, cuts, and quality options.
Cheaper, lower-quality cuts can be found in dollar stores, convenience stores, and grocery stores. Pricier, higher-quality cuts are sold at farmers markets, butcher shops, and gourmet stores, whether brick-and-mortar or online.
The difference in texture, aroma, and taste between cheap fresh meat that comes from animals raised in crowded factories that seldom, if ever, see the light of day and high-quality meat raised in a humane manner can be enormous. The former is dry and tough; the latter is moist and tender.
With that being said, one is marginally more expensive compared to the other, which is why many home cooks opt for lower-quality pork, and compensate for it by ameliorating its taste with marinades and sauces.
In general, it is better to buy your pork at the butcher shop or the meat counter at the supermarket than in the refrigerated or frozen meats aisle. Meat that’s cut or ground to order is fresher; packaged meat has much of its surface exposed to air and light. Bacteria quickly develop on the latter, causing off odors and bad flavor.
Choosing Ham at the Supermarket
In every supermarket there is regular ham, whether as a whole ham or in thin slices. There are also hams for special occasions, such as those imported from Europe or gourmet choices made according to a special recipe.
The amount of ham to buy comes down to the intended use and the size of the household. As with all meats, it is better to buy ham in small quantities and eat it while it’s fresh than to buy large quantities that will sooner rather than later spoil.
Still, ham is often sold at a discount. And, sometimes, the discount is just too good to pass up. When you find yourself in such a ham-buying dilemma, you can always stock up on a larger quantity of ham and, once you’ve unpacked your grocery bags, put the majority of it in the freezer.
Storing, Handling, and Cooking Pork
Raw pork is a perishable product. It must be refrigerated and cooked shortly after purchase. Otherwise, the pathogenic bacteria on the surface can multiply quickly and render it unsafe to eat, even after thermal treatment.
For food safety purposes, you should wash your hands, knife, and cutting board before and after handling raw pork. If your countertop came into contact with the meat, be sure to wipe it down with equal parts water and white vinegar.
For safe consumption, pork—whether we’re talking pork chops, pork belly, pork roast, or any other specific cut—should always be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F and rested for at least 3 minutes before serving. (So go the prescriptions of the USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service.)
Thin, tender cuts cook quickly. You can sear them over medium-high heat in your skillet, then turn the heat down to medium or transfer them to a 350°F oven to finish cooking. An alternative cooking method is broiling.
Thick, lean cuts of pork cook slowly. If dry heat is the preferred cooking method, you can roast or smoke them. If moist heat is preferred, braising and stewing are the two best cooking methods to have them come out nice and tender.
Storing, Handling, and Cooking Ham
Fresh ham is raw pork. As such, it should never be left out at room temperature for longer than 1-2 hours. So keep it in the fridge and cook it within a few days from buying.
Cook fresh ham thoroughly, planning for roughly 10 minutes of cooking time per pound of meat. The ham can be boiled in a pot or Dutch oven. If the size of the ham doesn’t permit this, the slab of meat can also be baked in a 350°F oven.
Despite lore to the contrary, the only accurate and reliable way to tell if fresh ham is done is with a meat thermometer. When the internal temperature in the center of the meat reaches 145°F, it is cooked. Once taken off the heat, the meat should be rested for 20-30 minutes, then carved and sent to the table.
For home cooks who don’t want to deal with the hassle of cooking the ham themselves, we’ve already established that plenty of options are available at the store.
Dry-cured ham has a long shelf life thanks to the fact that a great deal of the moisture has been removed from it during the drying. The opposite is true for wet cured ham: Once opened, it must be refrigerated and consumed within 3-4 days, otherwise it will spoil.
To enjoy dry-cured ham, slice it thinly and eat it as is, serve it on a meat platter, or build a sandwich with it. Wet-cured ham is a no-brainer: chop it up, warm it up, or cook up an omelet or frittata with it—the highly versatile cut that it is.