Whether it’s a fresh uncooked ham or a package of deli slices in the refrigerator, you’ll know when it’s bad. Rotten ham has an unpleasant odor, weird color, and may even have an abnormal fuzz growing on it. If you’re still unsure if it’s safe to eat or how old it is, it’s generally safer to trash it than eat it.
Trust your nose when it comes to food spoilage. If your ham smells funky, it’s probably spoiled. Bad meat gives off a sulfur-type odor, which is almost always noticeable right away. Open up the package and take a big whiff of the ham before you cook it or eat it. It should smell fresh, salty if it’s cured, or smoky if it’s been smoked. (If you see mold, don’t sniff it—more on that later.)
It’s normal for ham to be pink, even if it’s fully cooked. This rosy color stems from the curing process that involves injecting the meat with sodium nitrate to preserve freshness and keep it moist. You’ll notice that fully cooked ham is the same sort of pink as an uncooked ham. If you opt for uncured ham, it’ll be a paler, almost beige color. When it starts changing to a different color, it’s a sign that the ham could be going bad. Gray, brown, black, or green tones aren’t aren’t normal—if you see these colors, it’s likely time to toss it.
Generally, mold is something you never want to see on a ham. It can create mycotoxins, which are poisonous compounds that can make you sick. Plus, sometimes bacteria grow alongside the mold, further increasing your risk of illness if you eat it. Some people may even be allergic to mold growing on ham, resulting in respiratory issues. This is why it’s critical to never sniff a moldy ham. If it has a fuzzy outer coating, place it in a garbage bag, seal it, and throw it away outside. You don’t want those mold spores to go airborne and make someone else sick.
There may be an exception to the weird smell and mold rules: Certain types of hams do have a pungent odor, like country hams. Their high salt and low moisture content doesn’t stop mold growth during the dry curing process, allowing mold to grow on the surface. This doesn’t mean the ham is bad. Most molds on country ham and even salami are typically harmless if you’re in good health. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service suggests rinsing the ham under hot water and scrubbing off the mold with a stiff brush.