A country ham is a far cry from a city ham. Buying the right one can be the difference between needing to soak it for several days and being able to pop it right in the oven. Here’s the distinction.
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If you’re not accustomed to country ham, the first bite might set you on your heels for a minute. Notoriously salty, with a meatier chew than what we call a “city ham,” it can be an acquired taste. It is not, perhaps, the cartoonish, iconic city ham you know and love, but in the “ham belt” of the United States, which runs through portions of Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, it is enormously popular.

Here’s what each ham brings to the dinner table—whether or not you’re preparing one for the holidays.

What is ham, anyways?

Ham, generally, is the cured hind leg of a pig, and will comprise a cut somewhere between the shank (the ankle) and the rump. “Curing” means preserving, typically via salt, sugar, nitrates, and/or smoke. (It’s one of the ways we kept meat edible before refrigeration came around.) You can buy ham bone-in, bone-out, re-shaped, and pumped full of all sorts of liquids and chemicals, but ideally you’re buying with a ham-only product, so check the label.

What’s country ham?

Country hams, such as those sold by Edwards in Virginia and Benton’s in Tennessee, are generally cured with a dry rub, like a prosciutto, and are hung to dry at a controlled temperature. Their nutty, sweet, funky flavor condenses over many months. You can buy country hams smoked or unsmoked, and occasionally cooked, but generally they’re sold raw.

These hams have spiked in popularity, and in the ham belt, some restaurants will serve a sampler as a charcuterie plate. As Kentucky-born Stephen Barber, executive chef of Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch in California’s Napa Valley, explained, many of these hams will need a soak, or they’ll be inedibly salty. It’s a daunting process, explained Barber, in which a whole ham is soaked in a cooler of water, which must be changed every so often.

Not all, however: As customer service representative Deborah Lail of Benton’s clarified to me. “Mr. Benton has tried that before. He did not like it.” So check with your purveyor. Of course, Southerners are more prepared for the saltiness: “In the South, that’s the way we were raised,” said Lail. “People in the north or out west are unfamiliar with the country ham … I’ve had customers call me back and say, “This is really salty.’”

Southerners will typically paint country hams with a bourbon-and-molasses or reduced orange juice glaze, said Barber. “Most of the time, you’ll see it sliced in a skillet, with people eating it for breakfast.”

What’s city ham?

Much more common are city hams, which can come bone-in, bone-out, or compressed into a tin or round shape. (Avoid those, says Barber.) These are made by submerging the ham itself in salt water or injecting it with a salt solution. They’re typically smoked, and almost always fully cooked, but—as always—check that label. You want to look for those with labels reading “ham” or “ham and natural juices.” (More on that, plus how to cook a city ham for a holiday party, here.

Because it’s already cooked and generally requires just a quick shellacking of your own go-to glaze before being popped in the oven, city ham is generally easier to prepare, but ham fans should investigate country ham—meaty, funky, salty, and tasty—if they want to go, well, ham.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.