What is Raw Ham?

J. Hahn

Raw ham refers to pork that has been cured using salt and air, also known as dry-curing. The dry-curing process is time-consuming, but imparts a rich flavor that is prized by cultures around the world. This product can be found in a number of countries, but some of the most well-known examples are Italian prosciutto, Spanish jamon serrano and jamon iberico, French Basque Bayonne ham and Portuguese presunto.

Classic antipasto platter including raw ham.
Classic antipasto platter including raw ham.

Raw ham is cut from the haunch of a pig and utilizes the rump and thigh of the animal. The salting and drying process used to cure the ham is one of the oldest food preservation methods in the world and does not require any cooking. The salt acts as a dessicant, drawing out moisture and reducing the amount of bacteria present in the pork, while the air also acts as a bacteria inhibitor. Raw ham can be cured using just salt and air, but other spices are added depending on the region; Bayonne ham, for example, is rubbed liberally with Piment d'Espelette, which is made of dried red peppers.

Sliced prosciutto.
Sliced prosciutto.

Traditionally, raw ham was traditionally made during the winter and hung in cellars or basements, when the cold, relatively humid air provided a steady temperature and climate that prevented spoilage. It often is now cured in temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms, which eliminates much of the risk of contamination. Depending on the size of the ham, raw ham can be cured for anywhere from a few months to more than three years.

A leg of jamon.
A leg of jamon.

Many households made their own raw-cured ham before mass-produced food became widely available in the 20th century. That practiced has dwindled in the United States. In Europe, production of many different types of raw ham is codified and regulated by the European Union. For example, the EU recognizes six varieties of prosciutto alone under a Protected Designation of Origin. The designation is meant to ensure authenticity in production and marketing and extends to many types of raw ham created in other EU countries.

The flag of Spain, which produces some very famous raw hams.
The flag of Spain, which produces some very famous raw hams.

Raw ham is traditionally served very thinly sliced. It can be consumed alone or on sandwiches, wrapped around asparagus or melon, added to pasta or risotto, or served as part of an antipasto or tapas plate. Depending on the salt content and the amount of time the ham spent drying, the meat can taste incredibly salty or sweet.

Jamon iberico bellota is made from pork fed on acorns.
Jamon iberico bellota is made from pork fed on acorns.
Raw ham can be cured by just using salt and air.
Raw ham can be cured by just using salt and air.

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Discussion Comments

FirstViolin

This sounds really good, but I'm a little concerned about the food safety handling issues that come along with foods like this. I would be concerned that the food would be contaminated since it just hangs out there for so long.

I understand that the salt acts as a desiccant, and that salt itself can be very purifying, but can it really prevent bacteria and even parasites from colonizing the meat?

I would assume that there's a way to keep that from occurring, since it's so widely sold, but I just can't imagine it -- can you tell me more about this?

LittleMan

I was lucky enough to try jamon iberico when I was traveling in Spain a few years back -- it was as part of a company dinner, so I didn't have to pay for it, thank God! -- but it is really amazing.

I wasn't really a huge fan of antipasti-type meats before that, but something about the complexity of the jamon iberico is really something else.

I also learned something really interesting about it -- in order for it to be true jamon iberico, it has to be made from pigs that are from a certain breed and area. So if somebody tries to pawn you off with some jamon iberico that's not at least 75 percent iberico, just remember, it's not the "true" jamon iberico.

pleats

There are a lot of different kinds of raw ham too -- the make raw turkey and raw bacon as well.

You have to remember though, that you can't cook raw ham the way you cook fresh ham -- which can be a good or bad thing.

While raw meats like raw ham are excellent for antipasti and can also work well with pastas and risotto, it's really not very good for roasting or making eggs and ham, that kind of thing.

You might think that's silly, but I met a woman at the grocery store the other day who was trying to buy an entire side of prosciutto -- I asked her why, since that is really an enormous amount of raw ham, and she said she was going to roast it, since it looked like a normal ham. Well, needless to say I put her straight, but I got a kick out of it.

So just in case you didn't know, you can't cook raw ham the same as regular ham -- bear it in mind.

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