Cured Ham vs Uncured Ham: Unveiling the Differences 

November 4, 2022

The main difference is that the uncured ham is fresher and doesn’t go through the usual curing process. Natural nitrite preservatives are used in uncured meat instead of the artificial preservatives used in the cured version. It’s confusing, right? 

I know it is. “Uncured” is a term bandied around these days in the deli meat world; from pepperoni to hams, full roasts, and big birds. But what does it mean when I say I prefer uncured ham to cured ham? 

I have a lot of hands-on experience with ham; from brining fresh hams to processing and smoking them. So I can tell the differences quite easily. So continue reading the cured and uncured ham comparison to decipher the true differences between cured ham and uncured ham. 

Cured ham vs uncured ham

What is Better Cured or Uncured Ham?

In a nutshell, the uncured ham is the best taste-wise and when it comes to your health. It tends to be more flavorful and is healthier because it’s been processed with natural curing preservatives. There aren’t any chemicals in uncured meats. 

However, uncured ham has a shorter shelf life and is quite salty, and may not be suitable for people with high blood pressure or any other heart disease. But that’s not to say cured meats are perfect. Keep reading to learn more. 

Cured vs Uncured Ham: What’s the Main Difference?

 Attribute

Cured Ham

Uncured Ham

Water content

35 to 45%

70 to 80%

Fat content

4% per 2 oz

3% per 2 oz

Expiry time

In 6 months

In 4 months

Flavor

Loses flavor to water loss

Better taste than cured ham

Calories

69 calories per 2 oz

70 calories per 2 oz

Preservatives used

Synthetic

Natural

As mentioned earlier, cured ham is a fresh ham injected with largely man-made preservatives.  These can include chemical brine consisting of water, salt, sugar, sodium nitrate, sodium phosphate, sodium erythorbate, potassium chloride, and other flavorings. 

All these chemicals on a ham, you’ll say! However, most of these (nitrites and nitrates especially) are used in preserving meat, specifically to prevent botulism-causing bacteria from developing on the meat. The salt brine is also used in preserving meat by ensuring the meat dehydrates. The others give the ham a nice flavoring and taste. 

Meanwhile, uncured ham isn’t actually uncured. It’s a simple way to say that this meat has not been traditionally cured with all the aforementioned chemicals in the cured version. Curing meat naturally to get this type of meat often takes a few days or weeks.

Natural curing ingredients like celery powder and organic sea salt are used in uncured ham. None of those synthetic preservatives like nitrites and nitrates are used here. This is why I see this as a healthier alternative because there are no synthetically sourced nitrates which can turn to carcinogenic materials. So you can eat your ham with peace of mind. 

Processing

After removing the excess fat, the meat is dry-cured with salt and other natural brining preservatives, without adding synthetic preservatives or flavorings. Aging causes the ham to dry and acquire all the organoleptic characteristics typical of the finished product.

Unlike raw ham, the leg used to make cured ham is often boneless. After the pork rind has been removed, let’s move on to the syringing phases. Here, the ham is injected with brine. Then the meat is massaged to evenly distribute the brine in the muscle fibers.

What’s a Ham?

Ham refers to the leg (or shoulder) of the pig. It’s the largest piece of pig meat and one of the noble cuts of pork. A single ham can weigh more than 20 pounds and serve more than 20 people. 

It is also the name given to cured meat made from pig meat. 

Just in case you don’t know, the word ham is derived from the Latin word, “perexsuctum,” which means “dried up”.

From a purely technical point of view, the curing process can be equated with the natural dehydration used in mummification. 

Spanish Ham Placed On A Wooden Board

What Is Uncured Ham?

Uncured ham is also known as fresh ham. It’s similarly processed like turkey bacon. It is not injected with any brine chemical, smoke, or flavorings used in the traditionally cured hams.

Uncured ham is cured and processed with fresh (preferably organic) sea salt, celery powder, beets, and natural seasonings. 

During this natural curing process, it loses a good percentage of water and develops a better flavor. The meat however doesn’t lose as much water as the cured ham. So, this has a shorter shelf life.

The ham is hung in the open air to release its natural aromas. Pork fat is applied to the lean surface, a process called breading to preserve meat tenderness. 

When buying uncured ham, one major difference is that it has a naturally occurring color compared to the cured variety.

What Is Cured Ham?

To make cured ham, the cut of meat is deboned and injected with brine – a mixture of liquid based on water, spices, sodium nitrite, and other sodium chemicals.

Note, however, that cured ham is also processed using dry curing seasoning aside from the wet curing process with brine.

Nitrite salt is an artificial additive to prevent bacterial growth such as C. botulinum and other types. 

It also gives the ham a pink color (which would otherwise be gray). In industrial processing, other preservatives are often used to make it sweeter. These include the sweetener dextrose, to give flavor, or polyphosphates, which retain water in the meat. 

Is Cured or Uncured Healthier – Nutritional Differences and Health Concerns 

Is it true that many cured hams have less fat than uncured ham? Many believe that this is the case. But it is different in reality.

Uncured ham has less fat than cooked ham and can have more natural protein because it’s less processed.

Uncured ham may be wetter and have 80% more water than the cured version. However, the cured one has more fat (4%, compared to 3% of uncured ham). 

Overall, the cured ham has more protein; about 12 grams in every 2-ounce cut. Meanwhile, in the uncured version, there are around 10 grams of protein for every 2 ounces of meat which is not a lot of difference. 

You also have to consider that raw meat has a higher quantity of proteins and enzymes. It provides a good supply of vitamins and mineral salts.

Which Has More Calories?

So which of the two should you choose for a calorie-restricted diet? On calories, cured ham wins, albeit slightly as the difference is minimal.

Uncured ham has a little more calories (about 70 calories compared to 69 of the cured one out of every 2 ounces cut). Again, not a lot of difference.

However, if you suffer from high blood pressure, you might choose cured ham. Uncured meats contain too much salt, which is not good for hypertension sufferers. 

Dried Cured Ham

What About Cholesterol? 

For each serving of uncured ham, you can get about 30 mg of cholesterol. Meanwhile, the regular ham is highly processed and the cholesterol level can reach 53 mg. 

You should choose the uncured meat which, unlike the cured version, has more natural ingredients. 

Which Has More Nitrites or Nitrates?

Cured ham has higher health risks than uncured ham. This is because of the higher concentration of synthetic additives (sodium nitrate especially). During the curing process, this ends up as sodium nitrite and is a really serious carcinogen found in deli meats, warned by the W.H.O

But this is not a reprieve for the fans of the uncured. The natural preservatives (sea salt, celery powder, and beets) used in uncured versions have some nitrite content, although not as much as you would find in the chemicals used in cured meats. 

So, both products contain nitrites most of the time, except for certain products labeled nitrite-free. It is therefore advisable to check the content on the packaging because its excessive consumption can lead to colorectal cancer

How Much Ham to Eat? 

Whether uncured or cured ham, it is in any case advisable to limit your consumption of hams to about two portions per week

Organoleptic Characteristics

When purchasing uncured ham, it should have a compact consistency and a pale pink or beige color, tending to red, interrupted only by the white parts of the intramuscular fat.

The flavor varies from sweet to strong, with a more or less salty flavor, especially in uncured meat. The taste gets more intense and persistent as aging increases.

The color of the cured ham is light pink or rosy red, with a thin edging of fat; the taste has a slight underlying sweetness, without the salty flavor typical of uncured ham. 

How to Properly Store Cured and Uncured Ham?

The best way to store cured and uncured hams is to wrap them in a tea towel and keep them away from heat and humidity. I recommend storage at a temperature of around 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to prevent spoilage.

When you store hams under high temperatures, the thermophylic bacteria will start multiplying, swelling, and souring the product, according to the USDA. 

Recipes for Hams

Cured or uncured ham is perfect as an appetizer. For example on a mini skewer, with dried figs. 

I also like it cut into strips in a mixed salad, an omelet, a savory cake, or a sandwich. You can serve it with fresh goat cheese and lamb’s lettuce. You can even have it as a finishing touch on a pizza, a risotto, or a dish of pasta. 

You can also pan-fry it very quickly and combine it with fried eggs or squid for a successful land/sea combination!

Egg muffins with ham, cheese and vegetables

Conclusion

I’ve shown you all the differences in this cured vs uncured ham comparison. Some go crazy for the cured ham and others eat only the uncured ham. Cured and uncured hams are both still cured meat obtained from an adult pig. 

They don’t have the same color or the same taste. It all comes down to their preservative process. If it’s labeled uncured, natural preservatives have been used. If it’s cured, chemical preservatives are used. In any case, my advice is that you go for the nitrite-free labeled hams and not the products that have nitrites added. Finally, don’t get too addicted to them especially if you’re watching your sodium intake.

By Kristy J. Norton
I'm Kristy – a chef and connoisseur of all things BBQ! You can find me either in my kitchen (or someone else's) or at a big outdoor barbecue surrounded by friends and family. In both my professional and personal life I’ve picked up more than a few tips and tricks for turning out delicious food. I consider it a privilege to share it with others!
Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API. CatHead's BBQ is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for website owners to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon (.com, .co.uk, .ca etc) and any other website that may be affiliated with Amazon Service LLC Associates Program. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
More like this ...
Hungry Yet? Lets Grill Some!
Copyright 2022 CatHead's BBQ, all rights reserved.