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Cured vs Uncured Ham: Understanding the 7 Key Differences

Cured vs Uncured Ham: Understanding the 7 Key Differences

Humans have been consuming pork for centuries, but all types of meat have a distinct problem: meat is highly perishable. This means that pork (and other kinds of meat) go bad quickly, and poorly preserved meat can make you sick. This leads to the question of how people learned to preserve ham and the difference between cured vs uncured ham.

To keep pork and other meats from going bad, humans came up with curing, a process that has been a vital part of how people preserve meat even today.

What Is Curing?

The short answer is that curing is the specific process of preserving meat. During the preserving process, natural compounds made of oxygen and nitrogen are added to the ham to keep it from spoiling. These compounds are called nitrites and nitrates.

In addition to preserving the ham, the curing process also adds color, texture, and flavor to the meat. Before humans had refrigeration, curing was done primarily by salting and drying the meat.

What Is Cured Ham?

Slices of cured ham similar to italian prosciutto or spanish jamon iberico

Generally, cured ham is pickled or soaked in brine before it’s cooked or smoked. The brining process serves to preserve the ham, and it also gives the meat a salty flavor. In addition to salt, cured ham is cured with ingredients such as nitrates, sugar, and spices. These ingredients all help to inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. 

In most cases, cured hams must be cooked before eating or curing. This helps to reduce the amount of NaCl (sodium chloride). There are also harmful strains of the bacteria “Clostridium botulinum” (botulism) that survive in cured ham, and these strains are resistant to antibiotics. Cooking food kills this bacteria, so it’s recommended that you thoroughly reheat cured ham before eating it. 

Cured ham can be preserved with either a wet cure or a dry cure. With a wet cure, the meat is fully immersed in the brine solution. A dry cure indicates that the meat is rubbed with sugar, salt, and spices. 

Once the ham is cured, it’s then smoked and dried before it’s sold in a grocery store.

What Is Uncured Ham?

The prevailing myth is that uncured ham is, well, uncured. However, the fact is that uncured ham is also cured. However, uncured ham cures naturally and the curing process isn’t artificially induced. 

While cured ham is cured with nitrates and nitrites, uncured ham is allowed to cure naturally. For uncured ham, the curing process can take days and even weeks. Much of the curing process depends on the temperature and humidity of the environment.

In addition to some salt, uncured hams are cured with other ingredients as well, including nutmeg, cloves, celery powder, black pepper, brown sugar, and maple syrup. 

With uncured ham, you are consuming far less sodium. Uncured ham has sometimes been said to have a delicious smoky flavor. 

Cured vs Uncured Ham: 7 Key Differences

If you’ve not researched this topic, it’s possible that you never knew whether or not you were eating cured ham or uncured ham. The reason is that the taste is similar, and unless you know what to look for, the two types of ham don’t look that different. 

Below, we go into detail about the differences between cured and uncured ham. 

1. Preservatives used in the curing process

Cured hams are preserved using salt in a brining process, along with preservatives such as nitrates and nitrites. Alternatively, uncured ham is preserved with natural preservatives such as celery powder. While celery powder turns into nitrites when it’s processed, there is still a much smaller concentration of nitrites than with cured ham. 

In other cases, uncured ham is preserved with ingredients such as black pepper, maple syrup, brown sugar, and spices. 

2. Shelf life and freezer life

Because it has more preservatives, cured ham has a longer shelf-life than uncured ham. The smoking process also helps to preserve the ham. 

3. Color of the meat

Ham has a naturally pinkish flavor. However, cured ham is much pinker than uncured ham. The preservatives used discolored the pork. 

On the other hand, uncured ham looks much whiter than cured ham. 

4. Taste

Cured ham has a more intense flavor than uncured ham. 

5. Amount of sodium

Because it is brined with so much salt, cured ham is much higher in sodium than uncured ham. In addition to salt, cured ham is preserved using sodium nitrite.

On the surface, this may not be concerning. However, if you’ve been told by a physician to watch your salt intake, keep an eye on labels to ensure you’re buying uncured ham. 

6. Water content

Uncured ham has twice as much water content as cured ham (not as dry). 

7. Price

In most cases, cured ham costs more than uncured ham. The main reason for this is that cured ham has to be cured for a longer period of time. Also, the smoking process for cured ham drives the price up. 

Benefits of Cured vs Uncured Ham

Here are some of the benefits of cured ham.

  • Lasts longer because it’s cured with preservatives and salt
  • Has a flavor that’s slightly salty
  • Delicious smoky flavor
  • Longer shelf-life

Here are some of the benefits of uncured ham. 

  • Less sodium
  • Not as salty as cured ham
  • No smoky flavor, in case diners don’t like that
  • Made without preservatives

FAQs about Cured vs Uncured Ham

Which ham is better cured or uncured?

It depends on personal preference, but many people say that uncured ham has a superior flavor. Moreover, uncured ham (which is actually cured, just differently) is much healthier for you.

Does uncured ham taste better?

Many people believe that uncured ham tastes better. Ham that’s uncured is free of harmful chemicals, and the ingredients that are used in the curing process add to the flavor of the meat (especially unique styles like Polish ham). It gives lot of options for sides.

Is uncured ham unhealthy?

Because of how it’s labeled, you may wonder if it’s safe to eat uncured ham. However, keep in mind that uncured ham is actually cured. It’s just cured differently from “cured” ham.

When you buy an uncured ham at the grocery store, it has usually been thoroughly cooked. All you have to do is put your ham in the oven, heat it to the desired temperature, and then enjoy eating it.

Many people believe that uncured ham is healthier than cured ham because the curing process and preservatives are more natural. Also, uncured ham contains less sodium. 

To make sure you’re getting ham that’s free of nitrites or nitrates, look for that label that indicates that your product doesn’t have these harmful ingredients. 

Why is uncured meat better?

You’ll often see uncured meat labeled as natural or organic. This means that you don’t get the nitrates that have been synthetically sourced. For this reason, uncured meat is widely believed to be better.

The key is to read the labels carefully, know the brands, and choose the products that are recommended by honest reviewers.