The two most popular types of hams that you're likely to encounter are the Black Forest ham and the Virginia ham. Although similar, there a number of subtle differences between the two. On sight, identifying your porky friends is fairly easy, as Black Forest ham has a black coating and a Virginia ham has a more familiar brown skin. That's not the only place you'll find a distinction between the two, however.
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. Brining 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, while a true Black Forest ham comes from the Black Forest of Germany.
Virginia hams and Black Forest hams go through a different smoking process: Virginia hams are typically smoked over oak, hickory and apple wood, while traditional Black Forest hams are smoked over pine or fir. Smoking over pine and fir give the Black Forest ham a slightly more intense taste than a Virginia ham.
The black coating on the Black Forest ham traditionally came from beef blood, which covered the ham after its initial smoking and stained 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.
Taste and Preparation
The standard Virginia ham has a rich, yet dry, salty taste. Most cooks prefer baking or boiling the ham. Some prefer soaking 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 ham naturally has a moist, salty and intense flavor. It's commonly baked and added to pasta dishes for a kick of flavor. Alternatively, Black Forest ham can be thinly sliced and served with bread or cheese.