Ham vs Pork: What’s The Difference, and Why Does It Matter?

Pork and ham both come from the same animal: the pig. So why do they have different names, and are there any other characteristics that set them apart?

You might already know the short answer, but there’s more to the ham vs pork debate than meets the eye. Let’s take a closer look at this rivalry.

Ham vs Pork

Ham comes from the upper hind leg of the pig and the meat is always cured, which gives it a distinctive dark pink color. Pork is an umbrella term, referring to all of the various cuts of meat from the domesticated pig, particularly the ones that are sold raw. Therefore, while ham is technically a cut of pork, the terms are not interchangeable.

About Pork

raw pork shoulder

The first thing you need to remember is that all ham is pork, but not all pork is ham. Here’s what that means in a nutshell.

The term pork refers to any and all meat from domesticated pigs. It’s usually sold raw, in which case it needs to be cooked before it’s eaten. It may also be cured, which preserves the meat so that it can be consumed in that state. Ham is one example of cured meat, but it’s not the only one.

Pork accounts for nearly 40 percent of the world’s meat production. Though some religions prohibit the consumption of pork products and others eschew it on moral grounds, it remains one of the most popular protein sources around the globe.

About Ham

raw pork ham

By way of comparison, ham refers to a very specific portion of the animal: it’s always made from the pig’s hind leg. Further, the meat is cured, meaning that the flesh is preserved through smoking, wet-curing, or dry-brining. This also means that the meat doesn’t need to be cooked, although ham often tastes better when it’s heated through.

Breaking Down The Differences

Color

When it’s sold raw, pork has a pale pink color that may be slightly darker, depending on which cut it is. Lean meat, like the chops and tenderloin, are usually lighter in color, while fatty cuts like pork butt tend to be darker.

The curing process gives ham a distinctive flavor and a deep pink hue. The exterior may have a glazed appearance, with hints of orange and red.

Flavor

In its original state, pork has a mild flavor that serves as a good base for various sauces, rubs, and marinades. This is especially true of the leaner cuts like pork tenderloin. As a rule, the fattier the cut is, the richer the flavor will be.

By contrast, ham has a salty, smoky taste. It may be possible to emulate these flavors with the right combination of seasonings, but as a rule, ham is much more flavorful than regular pork.

Preparation and Consumption

When you purchase raw pork, you’ll have to cook it off before eating it. This gives you a great deal of flexibility in terms of preparation.

Depending on which cut you buy, pork can be pan-seared, roasted, grilled, smoked, braised, or baked. You also have full control over the seasonings. Unlike ham, pork contains no food additives, so if you’re worried about sodium content, pork is the clear choice.

Cured ham is sold ready to eat, and the meat is often sliced and sold as a sandwich filling. While cold ham is perfectly acceptable, we think it tastes better when it’s hot. The increase in temperature brings out the flavor and gives the flesh a softer, more appealing texture.

Ham also includes sodium nitrate as a preservative. This additive also gives the ham its dark pink color.

Shelf Life

As you might have guessed, preserved meat products like ham can keep for a lot longer than raw products. A country ham can be kept in the fridge for up to a week, while dry-cured meats like prosciutto can be left at room temperature for as long as two to three months.

When you buy raw pork, you should try to cook it the same day. Otherwise, it can keep in the fridge for three to five days. If you suspect that you won’t have time to cook the pork within this time frame, put it in the freezer right away.

Interestingly, most ham can be frozen, but it doesn’t keep well in the freezer. Frozen ham should be thawed and consumed within a month or two. On the other hand, raw pork can be kept in the freezer for as long as 12 months without suffering undue effects.

Difference Between Ham and Prosciutto

Prosciutto is another cured pork product, and it’s sometimes referred to as prosciutto ham. However, it’s important to remember that prosciutto is not the same as regular country ham.

Like champagne, prosciutto di Parma must hail from a specific region in order to earn the appellation. In this case, the pigs have to be born and raised in Italy. Additionally, the piglet’s diet must consist (at least in part) of the whey from Parmigiano-Reggiano, the hard, salty cheese that the region is known for.

There are nine other appellations for prosciutto. One of the best-known variants is prosciutto di San Daniele. The meat is softer and has a sweeter flavor than prosciutto di Parma, and it’s typically darker in color as well.

Can you substitute prosciutto for regular ham? Only in very rare cases. If you’re making a ham sandwich, for example, you’ll find that prosciutto is far drier and saltier than country ham. It also has a stringy texture that can make it difficult to eat unless it’s been crisped up beforehand.

We should also point out that authentic prosciutto costs a great deal more than deli ham. That’s another factor that makes it a poor substitute in most cases.

If the recipe you’re using calls for only a small amount of ham–say, as a soup ingredient or salad topping–then prosciutto can be a fine substitution. Otherwise, we would recommend sticking with regular ham and saving the prosciutto for special occasions.

Recipe Ideas for Ham

Just because ham has a specific flavor profile doesn’t mean it lacks versatility. Here are some of our favorite ideas for using up leftover ham.

ham grilled on fire outdoor garden
  • Dice the ham into small cubes and saute with shallots and toasted walnuts. Toss the mixture with freshly cooked thin pasta, such as spaghetti. Drizzle with olive oil and top with minced parsley and Parmesan cheese.
  • Mix diced ham with mayonnaise and Dijon mustard to make ham salad. Serve in toasted hot dog rolls or brioche buns.
  • Saute leftover ham strips with broccoli, carrot, and onion. Add sweet-and-sour sauce and cubed pineapple and serve over rice.
  • Scramble some eggs with cubed ham, minced onion and green pepper, and Monterey jack cheese to make a free-form version of a Western omelet. For a special treat, top the eggs with salsa.
  • Top a pizza with red sauce and mozzarella cheese as you normally would. Add sliced ham, crushed pineapple, diced smoked Gouda, and green peppers. The interplay of flavors and textures will make a devotee out of the most ardent pepperoni lover.

Recipe Ideas for Pork

As we mentioned, the sky is pretty much the limit when it comes to fresh pork. If you aren’t sure where to start, here are a few thoughts to inspire you.

  • Brush pork chops with a blend of Dijon mustard, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper and cook them over medium-high heat. We prefer to cook these on the grill, but on winter nights it’s fine to use the stovetop.
  • Make a homemade teriyaki marinade by combining tamari or soy sauce, dry sherry, canola oil, pineapple juice, freshly grated ginger, and fresh garlic. Use the mixture to marinate a whole pork tenderloin for 2-4 hours before firing up the grill.
  • Coat an 8- to 10-pound pork butt in your favorite BBQ spice rub and cook it at 225 degrees Fahrenheit for 16 to 20 hours. The meat will be so tender that it falls apart when you nudge it with a fork. This is the ideal base for pulled pork sandwiches.
  • Combine equal parts kosher salt, fennel seed, and dried oregano. Crush the ingredients together using a mortar and pestle. Rub the mixture on a pork loin roast and cook over a medium-low fire until the meat registers 145 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. If you’re using a regular oven, set the temperature to 325 degrees.
  • Make a stir-fry by sauteing thin strips of pork tenderloin in a ginger-soy sauce combination, then adding broccoli florets, sliced carrots, and diced onions. Finish off the dish with hot red pepper flakes and sesame oil, then serve over rice or noodles.

Final Thoughts

If you were hoping for a clear answer on who wins the ham vs pork debate, you won’t find one here. While it’s true that pork is healthier and offers more variety, the flavor and texture of cured ham can’t be duplicated. Which one you choose depends on what type of meal you’re planning to serve and how much time you have to prepare it.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

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