Shank or Butt Ham: Which One Should Wear the Crown?

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traditional roasted shank cooking on charcoal spit roaster

Food terminology can be confusing, especially when it comes to various cuts of meat.

For example, pork butt and Boston butt are the same cut of meat. Despite the name, this cut is actually taken from the upper portion of the shoulder. Steaks often go by several different names as well. And then you have ham, which is a cured pork product with two classifications: shank or butt ham.

Is one of these cuts better than the other? The answer depends on the occasion, as well as a number of other factors. Let’s take a look.

Shank or Butt Ham

Shank ham comes from the lower portion of the leg, while the butt end is found just above it. While the shank is more visually appealing and easier to carve, the meat can be on the fatty side. Butt ham is leaner, but it isn’t as flavorful as the meat from the shank portion.

A Word about Fresh Pork vs Ham

Before we begin, we should clarify that shank and butt are terms used to refer to fresh pork and not just ham.

When you hear these terms in reference to fresh pork meat, the shank refers to the lower portion of the front leg, while the butt is technically the shoulder of the animal.

About Ham

If you’ve ever purchased a whole ham, you received both the shank and the butt end. Both are taken from the hind leg of a pig, which is then divided up into two main sections. The lower portion of the ankle, known as the hock, contains a great deal of fat and gristle and is sold separately.

When ham is being prepared, the hock is the first thing to go. The rest of the leg is cured in a wet brine solution or a dry brine, then smoked until the meat is fully cooked. Because whole hams are so large, they’re separated into the shank and butt portions. Otherwise, it would be difficult to sell them, as they contain way too much meat for the average household.

Shank Ham vs. Butt Ham: The Breakdown

The shank comes from the pig’s lower leg and contains a single bone that runs down the length of the ham. The meat is fatty and easy to carve, thanks to the way the bone is positioned.

Butt ham, meanwhile, is made from the top portion of the leg. Because the meat is leaner, it often yields more servings.

The shank is a good choice for a holiday table because the meat carves up so nicely. It also has a more attractive appearance overall. If you don’t mind the extra fat, shank ham wins out over butt ham in terms of presentation.

How To Identify Them

You’ll notice that the shank portion of the ham has a slight funnel shape. This is due to the fact that the cut contains both a section of the femur and a shank bone. As a result, the meat is very flavorful, though it is slightly tougher than the meat that comes from the butt end.

The butt ham is noticeably smaller than the shank portion, with a rounded edge that makes it easy to identify. As we mentioned, the meat is leaner on this end, but the shape also makes carving more difficult.

roasted pork ham on a cutting board shank meat

The Two Butts

Here’s what confuses most budding chefs when they’re trying to learn the difference between all of the available cuts of pork. Evidently, a pig has two butts.

As we’ve determined, the terms butt and shank are used to refer to more than just the ham. It’s easy enough to remember that the shank is the lower segment, while the butt is the larger upper portion. This is true of both the front and hind legs.

However, when the pork shoulder is cured and smoked, it’s then referred to as a picnic ham, or sometimes a smoked shoulder. That can confuse people who don’t understand that most ham comes from the hind legs of the animal, while raw “pork butt” is actually the top part of the shoulder.

Shank vs Shoulder

Since the shank and shoulder are both taken from the upper segment of the leg, they have a few things in common.

First of all, the meat on a picnic shoulder ham is dense and tougher than the butt section or a regular ham. It also has plenty of flavor. If you were to compare the slices side by side, you might have a hard time telling the difference between the shank meat and the meat from a picnic shoulder.

Though it’s similar in texture, there are also a few differences. The shoulder contains a lot of muscle, and these muscles run in different directions. Therefore, it’s not as easy to carve into attractive slices. Picnic shoulder ham is also typically sold at a lower price than regular ham, so it could be a good choice if you’re on a tight budget.

Is Butt Ham Healthier than Shank Ham?

It’s safe to say that ham is no one’s idea of a healthy option for a main course. But does one of these cuts offer more health benefits than the other?

Both shank and butt ham are good sources of protein, which works in their favor. Because the meat on the butt end is leaner, it tends to be lower in calories as well as saturated fats. If that’s a primary concern, then butt ham is the clear choice.

That said, we should point out that fat and calories aren’t the only problem. Cured meats are high in sodium, with a single serving making up nearly the entire recommended daily sodium intake for adults. That’s why it’s best to enjoy ham only on special occasions.

naturally smoked ham

About Spiral Ham

By now, you’re probably wondering what the difference is between shank ham, butt ham, and the ubiquitous spiral ham.

The term spiral refers to the way the ham is sliced, so it’s not actually a different cut at all. In fact, it’s possible to buy a whole spiral ham, but the meat is usually divided into shank and butt sections.

Spiral ham is carved into slices before it leaves the processing facility. The slicer moves in a spiral motion all the way down the length of the bone without actually removing the meat. The slices on the butt end are larger, while the shank slices are denser and have a pronounced pork flavor.

If you’re looking specifically for spiral shank or butt ham, look closely at the shape of the meat. Does it taper off at the end, or does it have a rounded appearance? If you’re still not sure, ask the butcher or sales associate for clarification.

If you buy a ham that isn’t pre-sliced, it’s possible to carve the meat into spirals yourself while leaving the bone in place. This is a good option if you prefer thicker slices. However, the process can be tricky, which is why most people wait to carve the ham until just before serving.

Do You Have To Cook Spiral Ham?

Most of the time, spiral ham is sold fully cooked. That’s one of the reasons why it’s such a popular choice for holiday gatherings. Look for the words “precooked” or “fully cooked” on the label.

With precooked spiral ham, all you have to do is reheat it before serving. For best results, set the oven to a low temperature–no more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit–and heat the ham for about 10 minutes per pound. Otherwise, the outside might be too dry before the inside has had a chance to warm up.

Another way to prevent the meat from drying out is to cover the spiral ham with foil before adding it to the oven. If you want to apply a glaze to the heated ham, wait until the last 15 minutes of the planned cooking time. Once you’ve added the glaze, remove the foil and return the ham to the oven to finish heating.

About Serving Sizes

How much meat will you need to buy for your party? That’s the question all chefs face when they’re planning on serving many people at once.

As a general rule, you should plan on one pound of bone-in meat or a half-pound of boneless meat per person. Therefore, if 10 people are attending your event, you should buy a 10-pound bone-in ham or 5 pounds of boneless ham.

These numbers are flexible and dependent on several outside factors. If there are a lot of small children on the guest list, you won’t need as much meat as you would if the party was made up solely of adults. Also, if there will be many sides or an alternate protein source available, it’s fine to cut back on the serving sizes.

Final Thoughts

Although we think shank ham is the better choice in most situations, it comes down to a matter of taste. It’s a good idea to try both the shank and the butt at least once, so you’ll have an informed opinion the next time you go shopping for ham.

Happy grilling!

Darren Wayland Avatar


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