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Uncured Ham: Exploring The Mystery Behind The Term

Uncured Ham: Exploring The Mystery Behind The Term

“Uncured ham” is one of those interesting terms that gets more confusing as you learn more about ham—and curing, for that matter. When a label says that the ham is uncured, is it actually ham? And if not, what is it? 

Uncured Ham

Companies can label ham as “uncured” as long as no synthetic nitrates or nitrates were added to the meat during processing. The meat will still be cured and fully cooked, though. The distinction is the result of labeling laws dictated by the USDA, which can be somewhat misleading. 

About Curing 

For centuries, people have been using this method to preserve and flavor food, especially meat. Food that’s been cured has been treated with salt and a blend of other ingredients to remove moisture, which allows them to keep longer without fear of spoilage.

Often, curing is combined with other preservation methods, such as smoking. This boosts the flavor and may extend the shelf life further still. 

In the past, curing relied on natural ingredients, with salt being the most prevalent. With the rise of synthetic compounds like nitrates, the process has changed somewhat. Since the compounds work quickly and efficiently, manufacturers rely on these to cure their products. 

Man Curing Ham

About Ham 

A ham is taken from the hind leg of a hog. That’s what this cut is called even when it’s raw. However, by the time it makes its way to the store, ham has usually been either cured, aged, or smoked. 

In order to cure ham, the processors will inject the fresh meat with a brine that includes salt, sugar, sodium nitrate, and other chemicals and flavorings. After that, the meat is cooked to 150 degrees, thereby destroying any potential residual bacteria. 

Aged ham is salted and seasoned, but not necessarily subjected to a brine or cooking process. Instead, it’s hung in a temperature-controlled environment until a protective crust of mold forms on the meat. After the aging period, this crust is scraped off, and the resulting ham is washed and dried for packing. 

Then there’s cold smoking, which takes place at temps as low as 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The meat is cured beforehand and then subjected to the ultra low-and-slow conditions for days—sometimes even weeks. The wood used for smoking imparts a lovely flavor to the ham. 

What is Uncured Ham? 

As I pointed out, ham is a term for the rear leg of the animal. But the meat is seldom sold in its raw form. Unless you’ve raised the pigs yourself, finding a raw ham will be difficult. 

So what does it mean when you come across a ham that’s labeled as “uncured”? Here’s where things get confusing. 

Hams with this label have still been treated with a salt solution to remove moisture. Honey, sugar, or spices may also be included in the recipe. The processors usually smoke or cook the meat as well before presenting it for sale. 

In essence, what “uncured” means is that the meat is “free of nitrates and nitrites.” But even this designation is misleading. Most of the time, celery or beet extract, which contain naturally occurring nitrates, will be present in the “uncured” product. 

While these distinctions make it sound as though the processors are trying to pull a fast one on consumers, that’s not really the case. There’s a USDA law that requires this label for any meats that have been processed without any synthetic nitrites or nitrates. 

Uncured Ham Sliced

Are Nitrates Dangerous? 

By now, you may be wondering why nitrates would be excluded in the first place. If they help to preserve the meat, what’s the problem? 

When used to cure meat, nitrates can form compounds known as nitrosomes. Nitrosomes are carcinogenic and therefore dangerous when consumed in large doses. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified cured ham as a Category 1 carcinogen to humans. 

Is Uncured Ham Healthy? 

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any meat product that’s been salted so heavily is “healthy.” Salt is necessary to sustain life, but can cause serious health issues when taken in excess. Even uncured hams are too salty to be considered health food. 

What’s more, there’s no evidence that plant-based nitrates are any better for you than their synthetic counterparts. Consequently, many groups have called out the USDA for creating this labeling requirement, claiming that it’s misleading to consumers. 

Keeping all that in mind, there’s no reason why you can’t make uncured (or cured) ham a part of your diet. As with all processed meat products, moderation is the key. 

I would also recommend taking a closer look at the labels when shopping for ham, especially if you want a more natural product. Check for wording like “no nitrates or nitrites added,” even if followed by “except for those naturally occurring in . . .” 

Ham and Sausage Platter

Is It Safe? 

Ham with the “uncured” designation is every bit as safe to consume as cured ham. Remember, the meat is still treated in a way that makes it resistant to bacteria—it just doesn’t contain any synthetic nitrates or nitrites. 

Again, take a look at the label to make sure that the ham you’ve purchased is fully cooked. If it is, you don’t have to cook it to a safe temperature before eating it (though you may prefer to do so). Just heat it to remove the chill, slice, and enjoy. 

How To Prepare a Fresh Ham Roast

As noted, it’s not easy to find a fresh uncooked ham at the local grocery store. But if you do manage to get your hands on one, you’ll be able to season and cook the meat to your liking. 

Freshly prepared hams have a wonderful flavor when they’re done right. The texture might be different from what you’re expecting—more like a regular pork roast—but once you’ve tried it, you might never go back to store-bought cured or “uncured” hams. 

Ingredients 

For the Brine (optional): 

  • 1 cup salt 
  • 1 gallon water
  • 1 whole fresh uncooked ham roast, weighing 3 to 5 pounds 
  • 3 cups water 
  • 1/2 cup pure maple syrup 
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 

Directions 

1. If desired, prepare a brine for the ham. This step isn’t mandatory, but it will help lock in the moisture and provide an extra dose of savory flavor. (If you opt to skip the brine, move ahead to step 4.) 

Dissolve 1 cup salt in 1 gallon of cold water. Add the water and the ham to a pot large enough to hold both, making sure the ham is fully submerged. If necessary, you can add a bit more water to the pot to cover the ham. 

Fresh Ham Rosted Sliced

2. Set the pot in the refrigerator and allow the ham to soak for 3 to 6 hours.

3. Remove the ham from the brine and discard the liquid. 

4. Pat the ham dry with paper towels. Score the top fat layer with a small sharp knife, creating a diamond pattern or parallel lines. 

5. Preheat oven or smoker to 350 degrees. Set the ham in a baking dish or roasting pan. 

6. Season the roast, using liberal amounts of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Take care to rub the spices into the fat layer so that they adhere. 

7. Add 3 cups cold water to the baking pan. 

8. Add the ham to the oven or smoker and allow it to cook for 2 hours, or until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’d prefer a pulled pork-like texture, let it cook until it hits 195 degrees

9. In a small bowl, mix together the maple syrup and balsamic vinegar. Use this mixture to baste the ham. 

10. Increase the oven or smoker temperature to 450 degrees. Allow the ham to cook for 10 to 15 minutes more, basting with the syrup/vinegar solution every 5 minutes. 

11. Turn the ham over and let it brown on the other side for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, basting as desired. 

12. Remove the ham from the oven or smoker. Allow it to rest for 15 minutes, then carve it against the grain (or shred it if you’re going for a pulled pork vibe). 

13. If there’s any liquid left in the roasting pan, use it to baste the finished ham before serving. 

Final Thoughts 

Uncured ham isn’t the same as fresh uncooked ham. In fact, the meat is still cured, albeit in a more natural fashion. Make sure you know what you’re getting before you make your purchase. 

Happy grilling!