Think all sliced ham is the same? Think again.
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ham-taste-test
Credit: Maddy Sweitzer-Lamme

I haven’t had a ham sandwich in quite a while, but it’s a schoolyard classic that has seen me through a lot of years. When I was growing up, ham sandwiches were my go-to lunchbox hero, and their salty, porky flavor still appeals to me quite a bit. The options, though, are overwhelming—smoked, uncured, maple, black forest—so many descriptors that say so little. In an effort to figure out the differences and understand my options better, I decided to do a little taste test, and I have to say, the differences surprised me.

Best Overall: Sprouts Market Ham Off The Bone

Sprouts really came through when it came to both ham and turkey—they won our overall favorite for both. This ham had a nice, meaty texture with a pure-ham flavor that didn’t taste fake or chemical. It’s dry (some ham was so moist as to be kind of slimy) and would play well with condiments for a well-structured sandwich. We would serve this to anyone at any age, not just school children.

Best Maple: Applegate Farms Hand Tied Uncured Maple Ham

In addition to black forest, maple is the most common flavor added to ham, it seems. Whole Foods wins the ham game, with two out of three of our favorite hams coming from their deli counter. This one had a nice scent and flavor of maple without being overwhelmingly sweet—you could still taste the meat, which we preferred. The texture was also appealing, with none of the sponginess that some other options had.

Best for a Fancy Vibe: Whole Food’s Applewood Smoked Uncured Ham

This was the nicest ham we tasted, closer to something you might find on a charcuterie board that something you’d expect to see in a kid’s lunchbox. It had a nice meaty texture and it’s shape (you’ll find it at the deli counter being sliced to order) indicated that it was minimally processed. Tasters liked the balanced smokiness and pure ham flavor, and the small fat cap had a creamy, appealing texture. Buy this for a grown-up sandwich or to serve with fancy cheeses and a nice bottle of wine.

*A note on black forest ham: In completing this test, I realized I didn’t really understand what black forest ham is. A quick Google revealed that it is a German style of ham, which I’m sure is delicious in Germany. In my test, every type of black forest ham we tasted had a very off-putting flavor of spices that reminded me of Christmas and Thanksgiving, and not in a good way. The testers agreed with me that these flavors were not appealing, so I would recommend steering clear of black forest ham unless you specifically prefer it.

Other takeaways

Unlike turkey, there does seem to be a noticeable difference between prepackaged and sliced to order hams, with the prepackaged variety often having a texture closer to bologna than any naturally occurring meat. In the future, I’ll stick with sliced to order ham. The other major takeaway from this guide in comparison to the one I wrote for turkey, is that the average deli turkey is better than the average deli ham, so I’ll probably lean toward turkey in the future for my general sandwich-making needs.