You’ve probably ordered a pulled pork sandwich or a rack of ribs. And you’ve definitely had a BLT, and maybe even some grits. But what is a picnic ham? Well, regular ham comes from a pig’s back end aka rump while picnic ham comes from the front, in the area between its hock and shoulder. For reference, the hock is the leg, and standard ham lies above the rear hock.
Pork, Bacon, Leg Ham, and Picnic Ham
The average person thinks pigs are greedy and filthy because they’ll eat anything, including garbage! Plus, they love to roll around in the dirt. In truth, pigs can’t sweat, so these mud baths are spa treatments to prevent sunburn. And if pigs have adequately spacious pens, they separate areas to eat, sleep, and poop, so they’re quite hygienic and they rarely smell bad.
They’re even known to clean their ‘bedrooms’ and ‘kitchen tables’ which keeps their habitat neat! But while some people refuse to eat pork for religious reasons, the rest of us are willing to forget the filth factor when it comes to ham, bacon, or pork ribs – they just taste so good! Many of these pork cuts are preserved by curing – that’s soaking or rubbing them in salt.
Because ham (and bacon) are typically cured and sometimes smoked, they’re categorized as processed meats. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have artificial chemicals. Processing is any modification that improves taste or extends shelf life, and it includes curing, smoking, or fermenting. Ham can be dry-cured in salt, wet-cured in brine, and/or smoked over firewood.
As an aside, most bacon is cut from the belly of the pig, but Canadian Bacon, also known as back bacon, is sometimes categorized as ham. It’s a cut from the pig’s loin. In humans, those are the privates, but in pork, the loin is the lean area around the backbone. Also, while you often hear that ham comes from the leg or hock, ham lies in the area directly above the hock.
That spot above the front legs (aka the shoulder or brisket) is picnic ham, and the area above the back legs is standard ham. In diagrams, picnic ham is defined as the spot between the shoulder and the front hock. Some parts of this cut are close to the neck as well. To qualify as ham, the meat has to be cured, though smoking is optional. ‘Uncured ham’ is just raw pork.
How Ham is Prepped and Preserved
Here’s an interesting note – the cured meat around the belly, ham, and rump is called gammon before it’s cooked. It’s basically the back half of a pig, from its ‘waist’ to its tail. Gammon, bacon, and ‘leg ham’ have to be cooked before eating, but picnic ham can be eaten as is. Why do they call it leg ham? Well, when you butcher the pig, you chop off the whole leg.
That means you’ll include the chunk of meat humans would call the ‘thigh’. Think of it like a chicken drumstick – it’s the lower leg plus the fleshy part above it. In pictures, that space above the leg is the rear or the rump. But in practical terms, it’s part of the leg, which is why most sources refer to ham as the hind leg of a pig, while picnic ham is the front leg/shoulder.
After the pig is butchered, ham is cleaned then cured by pressing and salting to remove all the blood. In dry-curing, the ham is rubbed with salt while in wet-curing, the ham is soaked in brine, a concentrated solution of salt and water. The ham may also be spiced at this time, and certain herbs can be infused into the meat. It’s then washed and hung to dry in the dark.
The temperature of the drying area is carefully controlled, and the ham hangs for anything from 6 months to 2 years, depending on its type. Picnic ham is dry-cured, and sometimes has nitrites and/or nitrates added to kill bacteria. But these preservatives sometimes turn toxic or carcinogenic when cooked. Fortunately, you can safely eat picnic ham while it’s ‘raw’.
But because of the potential toxicity, many regulators restrict the amount of nitrites that can be used. On the other hand, wet-cured ham has to be cooked first, and it sits in brine for 3 days to 2 weeks during prep. A quicker technique uses a pump to infuse the brine into the meat. Both wet-cured and dry-cured ham can be smoked for extra flavor and longevity.
You can smoke ham the traditional way by suspending it over glowing wood chips. They should be embers, not roaring flames because smoking requires prolonged exposure over low heat. Another tactic is to spray the meat with atomized liquid smoke – the condensed form of those smoky vapors. But sprayed smoke is ‘smoke added ham’ or ‘smoked flavor’.
Types of Ham
|Name||Location||Processing and Prep Notes|
|City Ham||Rump (Back Legs)||Wet-cured and sometimes smoked|
|Country Ham||Rump (Back Legs)||Dry-cured, extra salty, needs soaking|
|Shank-End Ham||Lower Rump + Leg||Wet or dry-cured and extra fatty|
|Butt-End Ham*||Lean Upper Rump||Wet or dry-cured, lean, good for carving|
|Whole Ham||Upper + Lower Rump||Wet or dry-cured, may require cooking|
|Boneless Ham||Rump (Back Legs)||Deboned, dry-cured, and easy to use|
|Bone-Removed Ham||Rump (Back Legs)||Deboned but unprocessed, not cured|
|Boned Ham||Meat on Bone||Wet-cured, moist and flavourful|
|Ham Hocks||Below the Shank||Meat on bone, typically requires cooking|
|Picnic Ham||Shoulder (Front Leg)||Dry-cured, smoked or baked, ready-to-eat|
|Canadian Bacon**||Loin, Near Backbone||Lean, wet-cured, smoked, needs cooking|
*The butt-end ham is NOT the same as the pork butt. The butt-end ham is the upper rump (back), while the pork butt is the upper shoulder (front), sometimes called a Boston Butt. The name comes from the barrels – aka butts – that were used to store and ship pork shoulders in Boston. The lower section of the shoulder is called the Coppa in Italian. It sits between the pork butt and the picnic ham.
**Canadian Bacon (back bacon or pea-meal bacon) has a ham-like flavor and can be cooked.
Picnic ham is usually eaten in slices and added to sandwiches or salads. But the ham you see on (British and European) Christmas platters – aka Yule Ham – is basically cooked gammon. Around the world, various combinations of ham, cheese, pastry, bread, and eggs are regional delicacies. Examples include the croquet-monsieur, a baked or fried sandwich of boiled ham.
It has cheese too. The croquet-madame adds a fried egg. Or try a Korean budae-jjigae, a gumbo-like stew of sausage, ham, kimchi, spam, baked beans, instant noodles, and red chili paste aka gochujang. Here in the US, we have Denver omelets and Denver sandwiches, with fillings of green bell peppers, eggs, diced ham, onions, and other flavorings.
As a side note, anything labeled as ham at the store is cured. If it’s uncured aka fresh ham, it’s just pork and may be labeled as a hock, leg, or shoulder. Fresh ham (uncured) needs to be cooked carefully to destroy germs since the curing process entails salting the pork to remove excess water content. This kills most of its micro-organisms, which slows spoiling.
In general, ham has a savory palate with a slightly sweet note that can be heightened by adding honey or sugar during the curing process. Herbs and spices are optional. But purists claim picnic ham isn’t true ham because it comes from the front leg or shoulder rather than the back leg or rump. But it’s a convenient choice for salads, appetizers, and picnic bitings.
This is because the process of carving soft and/or fatty pork can be frustrating, and slices make consistent serving sizes. On the other hand, if you want a carving ham, buy a leaner butt-end ham. Meanwhile, ham hocks aka pork knuckles or pork shanks, are the actual leg of the pig, at the calf, below the ham. They’re more fibrous so they need longer cooking time.
Handling Ham Hocks and Picnic Ham
Ham hocks can be eaten as they are, but they’re mostly used for soup, stock, or broth. Back to picnic ham aka pork shoulder. It’s commonly sold at delis and grocery stores because it’s way cheaper than standard rump ham or leg ham and because it comes ready to eat. You can warm pre-sliced ham, but you don’t need to. Whole shoulders should be cooked though.
Popular options include barbequing and/or glazing with sugar or honey. Glazes also include cinnamon, apples, cherries, vinegar, and/or butter. That said, the shoulder bone makes it tougher to carve shoulder pork, which could be why it so often comes pre-sliced. But you can cook the shoulder whole and then cut it up for your sandwiches. Let it cool first for easier slicing.
While we know it as Picnic Ham in America, other places will sometimes package pre-sliced portions as Sandwich Ham. This ham is pre-cooked, and since shoulder pork has a higher fat content than the meat at the rump, picnic ham often has a distinctly marbled appearance. It works well in ham salads, pizza, lasagna, baked sandwiches, mac ‘n cheese, and porky pasta.
If you’re handling a whole shoulder ham, you can cook it by boiling, braising, roasting, glazing, pulling, baking, or barbecuing. Slow cookers do a good job, and so do ovens. You can then carve it into slim sandwich portions or thicker steaks. Fruity serving suggestions include pineapple, oranges, and cherries, which all heighten the sweet notes in your ham.
The True Test of Picnic Ham
As we said earlier, some people don’t see picnic ham as true ham because it comes from the shoulder (or front leg) rather than the rump (or back leg). But because it’s cheaper and has more fat, it’s a flavourful filling for your sandwiches, salads, finger foods, and picnic snacks.