City versus Country

A tale of two hams

When it comes to ham, you have a choice: city or country.

City ham: Most people living outside the South are familiar with the often spiral-sliced varieties that grace holiday tables. These hams are wet-cured, meaning that they are either submerged in or injected with brine, then smoked and sold fully-cooked for you to glaze and warm at home. Note: You can buy a fresh ham and cure it yourself.

When purchasing a city ham, mind the water content; more water literally waters down the hammy flavor and you pay extra for water weight. Instead, look for one that lists only "ham" on the ingredient label, or is labeled "ham with natural juices." A ham labeled "water added" contains up to 10 percent water, and one labeled "ham and water product" can contain an unlimited amount of additional water. We like these hickory-smoked and peppered ones from Texas-based Ham I Am!

Country ham: This specialty of the American South is cured with a mixture of sugar and salt, hung and then left to age for anywhere between nine and 24 months (and sometimes longer). Like an Italian prosciutto, these hams are never cooked, and over time develop a funk and a pronounced saltiness. A fine filament of mold develops on the exterior, which adds to the distinctive flavor, and as the meat ages, it develops white specks. Country hams must be scrubbed, soaked and boiled before they're eaten: This ham requires commitment. Allan Benton is a renowned producer of country ham, the right kind of fanatic, and produces only a set amount of hams each year.

 The good news: Both are equally good on a flaky biscuit.