City Ham Vs. Country Ham: What Is The Difference?

The two ham types are distinctly different in their origin, preparation, and flavor.

apricot glazed ham
Photo: Frederick Hardy II; Food Styling: Margaret Dickey; Prop Styling: Christina Daley

When you imagine ham, you might conjure a sandwich piled high with cold cuts, crisp iceberg, tomato slices, and your favorite condiments, or perhaps a Rockwell-worthy Easter feast replete with a honey-glazed, spiral-cut ham atop a silver platter. 

There are many types of ham, from black forest to honey-baked, but all ham can generally be filed into one of three different types: city ham, country ham, or fresh ham. There are distinct differences between the three, starting with their preparation, which begets the many other contrasts, including flavor, texture, and ideal ways to enjoy them.

Those delicious visions—the deli-sliced cold cut and the whole glazed ham—fall into the same ham category, known as "city ham."

Country ham is generally lesser known than the various types of city ham, but here in the South, it’s a beloved special-occasion staple, with a salty-funky flavor that can complement the subtle sweetness of a homemade sweet potato biscuits at breakfast or marry beautifully with Cornish game hen or roasted chicken at dinner.

Whether you hope to be a ham aficionado or just want to choose the ham that’s best to serve at your next holiday gathering, it will behoove your culinary intelligence to learn the difference between country ham and city ham.

But First: What Is Ham, Anyway?

Ham refers to the meat from the upper portion of the back leg of a hog. Aside from city and country varieties, ham can also be sold fresh (look for a label of "fresh ham" at the market) and then cooked like a pork shoulder or cured at home.

City and country hams are cured, cured and smoked, or cured and cooked before going to market. The curing style and length will determine whether a ham falls into the "city" or "country" category.

What Is Country Ham?

Country ham has origins in the American Colonial days, when hams were salt-cured and aged from 70 to 200 days, depending on the producer, in order to preserve them for consumption for months or even years, says Chef Fred Tiess, master instructor in the college of Food Innovation and Technology at Johnson and Wales University’s Charlotte campus. 

Certain areas of the world are sweet spots for salt-curing ham—referred to as "the ham belt"—thanks to their ideal conditions in which the weather is not so cold that the ham will freeze and not so hot that it will spoil. Like prosciutto from Parma, Italy, and serrano from the mountains of Spain, country ham from Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia are among these revered cured ham types.

The process of salt-curing country hams generally involves mixing salt with sodium nitrite "to reduce microbial activity, which prevents the ham from spoiling," Tiess says. "Sodium nitrate then converts to sodium nitrite in the process of curing." Country hams can also be cured with a salt-and-sugar mixture and are often smoked over hickory after curing to enhance the flavor.

Each state—and often each producer—has a slightly different country ham production method, with distinctions in the ingredients used and the amount of curing time.

"From my observation, the production of country ham in the ham belt is similar to the variety of wines from Italy," says Tiess. "Each family or village has a special way of creating their version."

The result is a salty, funky, sometimes nutty flavor that country ham fanatics adore. "The salting and aging process intensifies the flavor, because of the evaporation that occurs during the curing process," Tiess says. Because of its robust, salty flavor profile, country ham is best enjoyed thinly sliced, atop a flaky biscuit at breakfast, on a charcuterie board at cocktail hour, or as an accoutrement for other meats, especially poultry, at dinner.

Country ham’s time-intensive process and limited regional availability has rendered it a rather expensive delicacy that’s not as widely available as the cold cuts at your local grocery chain. If you’re not in one of the prime country ham producing states, fear not; you can easily order and ship cooked and uncooked country hams from venerated smokehouses and sellers like Broadbent’s, Col. Bill Newsome’s, and Father’s Country Hams in Kentucky; Benton’s, Rice’s Country Hams, and The Hamery, in Tennessee; Goodnight Brothers, Sugar Grove, Silverstone Ham Co., and Smithfield Marketplace in North Carolina; and Edwards, the Old Virginia Ham Shop, and Smithfield Marketplace, which sells Smithfield ham, a type that can only be processed within the corporate limits of Smithfield, in Virginia.

What Is City Ham?

The advent of refrigeration brought forth "city ham," which is ham that is wet-cured in a saltwater brine instead of dry-cured like country ham, and then refrigerated to stay fresh. City ham can either be cured by submerging it in brine or injecting it with brine, which can quicken the process for a cure in two to three days, Tiess says.

After brining, city hams are typically smoked and almost always fully cooked. Because they can be cured so quickly and kept fresh with refrigeration, they are much more common and affordable than country hams. They’re also available in many different iterations, from bone-in or bone-out, spiral-cut, honey-glazed, sliced into deli meat, or even compressed into a round shape or tinned.

The result is a moist, less intensely salty flavor than that of country ham, which makes city hams ideal for using on sandwiches or eating by the slice alongside a plate of holiday favorites.

Let's Recap: What Is the Difference Between Country Ham and City Ham?

The difference between city and country ham comes down to how they’re cured. Country hams are cured by dry-brining for several months, while city hams are wet brined for a much shorter amount of time and kept fresh thanks to the advent of refrigeration.

The difference in curing process begets the two styles’ contrasting textures, flavors, and ideal uses. Because of evaporation during the dry curing process, country hams are saltier and funkier, while city hams are milder and more moist. Country ham is best served sliced thin, like prosciutto or other salty, dry-cured meats, while city ham can be enjoyed in thicker cuts.

Whichever ham style you select for your holiday celebration or weeknight meal, you can count on it being a hit with guests.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles