Where Is Ham Produced? A Complete Guide

Ham is a beloved meat that has been enjoyed for centuries. Whether it’s a classic ham sandwich or a fancy charcuterie board, ham is a versatile ingredient that can be enjoyed in many different ways.

But have you ever wondered where ham comes from and how it’s produced?

In this article, we’ll explore the history of ham and the different methods used to produce this delicious meat around the world. From Italian prosciutto to American country ham, join us on a journey to discover where ham is produced and how it has become a staple in cuisines across the globe.

Where Is Ham Produced?

Ham is produced all around the world, with each region having its own unique methods and variations. One of the earliest methods of preserving meat was through drying, smoking, and curing, which allowed for the development of civilization. The advent of curing enabled cities, people and cultures to flourish, and the preserving of pork leg as ham has a long history.

Some of the most well-known varieties of ham include Italian prosciutto and Spanish Jamón serrano and jamón ibérico. The United States has country ham, which might or might not be smoked. England has York ham and Wiltshire ham. Germany’s Westphalian ham is usually smoked over juniper, in Belgium there is the dry-cured, smoked Ardennes ham, and in Iran, the dry-cured Zard Kūh ham is produced.

The conditions required for curing meat need to be such that it is not so cold that the ham freezes, unable to cure, or too warm causing the ham to spoil. The result is distinct areas around the world renowned for their particular hams. These original ham centers are still prized as being the finest ham producing regions today.

The History Of Ham

The history of ham can be traced back to ancient traditions of preserving and storing food. Drying, smoking, and curing were some of the earliest methods discovered by the ancients, which enabled the development of civilization. The preserving of pork leg as ham has a long history, with traces of production of cured ham among the Etruscan civilization known in the 6th and 5th century BC.

Cato the Elder wrote about the “salting of hams” in his De agri cultura tome around 160 BC. There are claims that the Chinese were the first people to mention the production of cured ham. Larousse Gastronomique claims an origin from Gaul. It was certainly well established by the Roman period, as evidenced by an import trade from Gaul mentioned by Marcus Terentius Varro in his writings.

The modern word “ham” is derived from the Old English word “ham” or “hom,” meaning the hollow or bend of the knee, from a Germanic base where it meant “crooked.” It began to refer to the cut of pork derived from the hind leg of a pig around the 15th century.

Enthusiasm for ham spread throughout ancient Europe with the Romans, who likely learned of the practice while trading with the Chinese. A surprisingly workable recipe for ham with figs survived from the second century when it commanded attention on ancient banquet tables. The Gauls produced precursors to the contemporary world’s renowned Bayonne, Black Forest, and Westphalian hams.

Christopher Columbus carried eight pigs on board with him when he left Spain for an unsuccessful search for the New World, but explorer Hernando de Soto’s 13 pigs became the breeding stock for the United States’ pork industry when he landed on the coast of Florida in 1539. Within just a few years, his passel of hogs grew to 700. By the 17th century, most colonial farmers raised pigs. The long shelf-life of salt pork and bacon made both staples in early American kitchens.

Today, ham is produced all around the world with each region having its own unique methods and variations. Whether it’s Italian prosciutto or Spanish Jamón serrano and jamón ibérico, or country ham from Kentucky and Virginia in the United States, each variety has its own distinct flavor and history.

Traditional Methods Of Ham Production

There are two basic methods of curing ham: dry curing and brine curing. Dry curing involves rubbing the meat with a mixture of salt and other seasonings, while brine curing involves soaking the meat in a mixture of water and the curing agents. Dry curing is faster than brine curing, taking only two to three days per pound of meat, while brine curing takes about four days per pound of ham.

Commercial curing processes often involve injecting the pickle (curing mixture) into the ham using a pump fitted with a perforated needle. This accelerates the curing process and ensures that the ham is evenly cured. Alkaline phosphates are commonly used in conventional curing to increase moisture retention in the ham.

There are three general ham processing systems depending on the final product: traditional bone-in cured/smoked ham, boneless premium ham, and boneless sectioned or chopped and formed ham. Combination cures, such as pumping with pickle followed by dry curing, are also used.

Many mild-flavored retail hams are pumped arterially to 110-118% of their raw weight with a pickle containing dextrose and corn syrup. Beyond these basic distinctions, there are many different types of hams hailing from places all over the world, each with specific textures and flavor profiles that make them unique.

Ham Production In Europe

Europe has a rich history of ham production, with some of the world’s most famous hams originating from this region. The EU is the world’s second-biggest producer of pork, with Germany, Spain, and France being the largest producer countries. These countries account for half of the EU’s total production, and they have been producing ham for centuries.

One of the most famous types of ham from Europe is the Italian prosciutto. Prosciutto is made by rubbing the fresh ham with dry salt and other ingredients which draws out the moisture and then drying for 6-12 months. The result is a concentrated ham flavor that is highly sought after around the world.

Spain is also known for its jamón serrano and jamón ibérico. These hams are made using traditional methods that have been used for over 2,000 years. The hams are cured for at least 18% of their original weight, resulting in a rich and intense flavor.

In addition to these well-known varieties, there are many other types of ham produced throughout Europe. Each region has its own unique methods and variations, resulting in a diverse range of flavors and textures.

However, there have been concerns raised about animal welfare in European ham production. Animal welfare campaigners have called on UK supermarkets to stop selling premium ham produced in “sow stalls” on EU farms. These cages have been banned in the UK since 1999 and in Sweden, but their limited use is still legal in the EU. Campaign groups like Compassion in World Farming are urging agriculture ministers across Europe to introduce a ban on caged farming without delay.

Despite these concerns, ham production remains an important part of European culinary heritage. The unique flavors and textures of European hams continue to be celebrated around the world, making them a beloved delicacy for foodies everywhere.

Ham Production In North America

Ham production in North America has undergone significant changes over the past few decades. The United States, in particular, has seen a rapid shift towards fewer and larger hog operations since the 1990s. The number of farms with hogs has declined by over 70%, and large operations that specialize in a single phase of production have replaced farrow-to-finish operations.

The U.S. country (or dry-cured) hams are uncooked, cured, dried, smoked-or-unsmoked and produced from a single piece of meat from the hind leg of a hog. Dry-cured hams and prosciutto are made by rubbing the fresh ham with dry salt and other ingredients which draws out the moisture and then drying for 6 months but most are cured 9-12 months and many over a year which reduces the ham weight by at least 18%.

In North America, ham production tends to be heavily concentrated in the Midwest, particularly in Iowa and southern Minnesota, as well as in eastern North Carolina. The U.S. hog industry has undergone significant structural changes, coinciding with efficiency gains and lower production costs. Most of the productivity gains are attributable to increases in the scale of production and technological innovation.

The curing process used in North America involves adding salt and sodium nitrites to preserve meat products such as sausages, salami, hot dogs, ham, bacon, and corned beef. However, there is a growing trend towards using natural sources like sea salt and celery powder instead of artificial nitrites and nitrates. This trend is expected to fuel the growth of the uncured segment in the upcoming years.

Ham Production In Asia

While Europe and North America are known for their ham production, Asia has also emerged as a major player in the industry. In recent years, the consumption of cured ham in Asian countries has skyrocketed, leading to an increase in production.

According to a study presented by the Interprofessional at the 11th World Ham Congress, Spanish ham is perceived as the best in the world by consumers in Japan, South Korea, China, and Vietnam. Japan is a mature market for cured ham and is particularly attractive to Spanish companies. China and South Korea are experiencing significant growth in their consumption of cured ham, while Chinese-Taiwan and Vietnam are still in the early stages of getting to know Spanish cured white-layer ham.

Jinhua ham is a type of specialty dry-cured ham produced in Zhejiang province, China. It is used in Chinese cuisines to flavor stewed and braised foods, as well as for making stocks and broths for soups. Jinhua ham has an attractive color, unique flavor, and bamboo leaf-like shape. Its rose-like muscle, golden yellow skin, and pure white fat make it one of the most preferred items for food decoration and flavor enhancement in Chinese cuisine.

Health Considerations Of Ham Consumption

While ham is a popular and delicious meat, it’s important to consider the potential health implications of its consumption. Ham is high in protein and contains several beneficial nutrients, including B vitamins like vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. However, it’s also high in sodium and cholesterol, especially when it’s processed.

Regularly eating processed meats like ham has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, including colorectal cancer. The smoking process used to preserve some types of ham may introduce carcinogens, while the use of nitrate and nitrite-based preservatives can also be associated with cancer risk. Additionally, consuming too much processed meat may lead to weight gain and cellulite formation.

For those following a low-salt diet, ham may not be a suitable choice due to its high sodium content. Cooking ham at high temperatures, such as roasting or grilling, may also increase the concentration of carcinogens in the meat. It’s recommended by the World Health Organisation to moderate your intake of processed meats like ham.

Individuals who are pregnant, elderly, or very young may be at risk for bacterial contamination from sliced deli meats like ham. Some people may also be allergic to pork or sensitive to preservatives used in processed pork products like ham.