Merely looking at a Black Forest ham reveals its major difference from a Virginia ham, as a Black Forest ham has a black coating, while a Virginia ham has a more familiar brown skin. In spite of this obvious difference in appearance, though, the Black Forest ham and Virginia ham are both tasty hams.
Both Virginia hams and Black Forest hams go through a process called "dry curing." Dry cured hams come from the hind leg of a pig, and the butcher performs the curing process without injecting any water or moisture into the meat or without soaking the ham in water prior to smoking it. Immediately before smoking the ham, the butcher rubs it with a dry cure mixture made of salt and other dry seasonings. After smoking, the ham ages, losing 20 percent of its moisture content and acquiring a salty taste.
Nontraditional Black Forest Hams
Rather than dry curing, a nontraditional Black Forest ham goes through a brine curing process. Brine curing soaks the ham in salt, sugar and water prior to the smoking process. This produces the familiar black exterior of a traditional Black Forest ham, but this nontraditional version has a different, less salty taste.
Virginia hams and Black Forest hams originate from two different locations. Virginia hams, a type of country ham, come specifically from the state of Virginia. On the other hand, a true Black Forest ham comes from the Black Forest of Germany.
Wood Used in Smoking
Virginia hams and Black Forest hams go through a slightly different smoking process due primarily to the location each ham comes from. Most butchers smoke Virginia hams over oak, hickory and apple wood, while most German butchers smoke traditional Black Forest ham over pine or fir. Smoking over pine and fir give the Black Forest ham a slightly more intense taste than commonly found with Virginia ham.
Exterior Color Details
The black coating on the Black Forest ham traditionally came from beef blood. The beef blood covers the ham after its initial smoking and stains the skin black. Nowadays, however, the black exterior often results from spices applied prior to the smoking process and from the smoking process itself. The Virginia ham lacks this blackened exterior altogether.
Overall Taste and Meal Preparation
The standard Virginia ham has a rich yet dry, salty taste. Most cooks prefer baking or boiling the ham. Some prefer soaking the ham prior to baking in order to reduce saltiness. Others add a glaze, typically made of brown sugar and tropical fruit juice, to sweeten and moisten the final product. Traditional Black Forest hams naturally have a moist, salty and intense flavor. Many cooks prefer to bake the ham and add chunks of it in pasta dishes for a kick of flavor. Alternatively, some serve Black Forest ham in thin slices, served with bread or cheese.