Special Focus: Deli Ham

With sandwiches and breakfast two fast-growing categories, ham is becoming a staple on purchase orders. Most deli ham is produced by curing a leg of fresh pork in a brine solution, but specialty hams, such as prosciutto and Smithfield, are dry-cured. After curing, top manufacturers are now differentiating products by smoking ham with hardwoods.

A current trend among deli meat processors is to produce hams with all-natural ingredients and lower sodium content. “In general, we’re seeing increasing demand for cleaner labels, packaging and product transparency,” reports Matt McGuire, senior manager, sliced meats, for Sara Lee Foodservice. “There will also continue to be a push for lower sodium and healthier products.” Sara Lee now offers both honey and hardwood smoked ham, both of which come in low-sodium varieties.

Hormel, another major producer, offers Natural Choice sliced ham—a product with no additives, preservatives or artificial ingredients—in both lower-sodium and premium cherrywood smoked varieties. “People are looking at hams with unique smokes,” says Annemarie Vaupel, product manager at Hormel. Plus, “if a restaurant menus ham as cherrywood smoked, for example, they can charge more for it.”

Most restaurants are now buying pre-sliced ham for better food safety; there’s a greater chance of foodborne illness with slicing machines. Hormel’s TrueTaste technology goes a step further—it uses a USDA-approved water pressure process to kill potential food spoilage organisms. It’s applied to the company’s Bread Ready sliced ham, extending shelf life to 120 days.

When evaluating a deli ham product, water content is one of the most important indicators of quality, notes McGuire. Dry hams, like prosciutto, have 0-5 percent moisture content; they have rich flavor but come at a high price. A natural juice, 5-9 percent moisture ham is considered a premium ham for specialty sandwiches and thick salad cuts, McGuire adds. Hams with 9-19 percent moisture, referred to as “water added,” are the most common and versatile product for foodservice, as they can be sliced thin but still retain muscle integrity. For the price-conscious, there is a ham and water product at 19-49 percent moisture.

Smoke application and muscle definition are also keys to quality. There are three ways to smoke a ham, explains Vaupel. “Smoking with burning hardwood is the most premium and imparts the best flavor. Atomized smoke applied to the casing and liquid smoke added to the cure are also used; these hams won’t have the same hardwood aroma or natural flavor.” Whole muscle ham is the most desirable; pockets of fat between the muscles and color variation in the meat indicate more processing of the muscles. The more value-priced the product, the thinner the slice, Vaupel points out. Weights range from “shaved” or very thin to ½-oz., .67 oz. and thick-cut .75 oz. and 1-oz. slices.