By definition, ham is just cured pork leg, but the way each culture makes it is so spectacularly different. I love the fancy, paper-thin, melt-in-your-mouth Spanish jamón ibérico and the salty, fatty Italian prosciutto di Parma, but I also love what this article is all about: deli ham.
Deli ham is iconically American. It’s meant to be stuffed in between bread, wrapped in foil, and shoved in a lunch box. Some tasty, sweetly smoked sliced ham on a sandwich with good mustard, or a hot ham and cheese fresh off the griddle satisfies every time. Ham is, despite what elitists might say, also a great snack. A 2 a.m. jaunt to the fridge usually calls for a few slices of processed pork leg. How good is ham? It seamlessly wedged itself into breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I would argue that a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich is just as iconic as a roast ham on Easter Sunday. That’s because ham is, as Homer Simpson knows, perfect for any occasion.
For this taste test, the Sporked staff sat down at our conference room table with Greg Johnson, Mythical’s director of short form content (and discerning meat lover), and ate ham straight from the package like a bunch of animals. (By the way, I feel like we need to name the taste test room. Any ideas? I was thinking something like Wolf Blitzer’s Satiation Room or The Stink Tank (when we taste test sardines). Look, I’m just spit-ballin’ here.) Anyway, here’s what we looked for: We wanted our ham to feel like meat. Anything overly processed and thick didn’t score too high. The ingredient list on a package of ham shouldn’t read like a can of Spam (although we love Spam). We wanted a really nice, not overly salted savory flavor with a hint of sweetness. We wanted ham with flavor, texture, and razzle-dazzle. Here are the best hams that made the cut.
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- Boar’s Head Cooked Uncured Ham
Boar’s Head is famously reliable when it comes to grocery store deli meats, and their ham is as solid as it gets. It’s savory and rips in your mouth like it’s actually meat—not some homogeneous, alchemic ham mixture. It’s a bit fibrous, which gives it that natural, organic texture. There’s a good marbling of fat, as well. It’s sweet, salty, and smoky. There’s also this nice casing around it, like you see with capicola (gabagool if you insist, Tony). Boar’s Head ham makes the perfect deli sandwich or ham, egg, and cheese croissant—and good luck resisting grabbing a few slices out of the fridge late at night. Boar’s Head is a solid eight out of ten, but we’re leaving some room for improvement here. We’re looking for something that’s a bit more like sliced, roast ham to dole out a score of nine or ten.
Credit: Ryan Martin / Pavilions
- Applegate Black Forest Uncured Ham
Applegate’s Black Forest Ham has a perfect texture, sweet taste, and a nice smoky finish. It’s also thin, but not too thin. It won’t rip in your hands when you go to grab it from the package. You can really stack this one nicely into a sandwich. Folds of ham cascade onto one another for a meaty, but not overly dense ham sandwich. Plus there’s no antibiotics and they advertise that the animals are humanely raised. Do your own research, but that’s important in today’s food landscape.
Credit: Ryan Martin / Target
- Land O’Frost Premium Old World Style Black Forest Ham
Land O’ Frost Black Forest Ham is thinly cut but still nice and meaty. The sweetness is subtle, and it’s not overly salty like some other packaged hams. Plus, the price we got for one pound of ham ($4.42) is really, really good considering the quality. A hot ham and cheese sandwich succeeds when there’s a lot of ham and a lot of melted cheddar cheese. Given that this is a quality product and with a good price, Land O’Frost takes the crown in that category. Plus, you don’t want something too sweet when it comes to a hot ham sandwich.
Credit: Ryan Martin / Walmart
- Hormel Natural Choice Smoked Ham
Hormel is oh-so delicious and sweet. Actually, it’s very sweet. It feels less like it was glazed with honey and more like it was dipped in the stuff. That makes it our choice for best ham to pair with mustard. Put this on a roll with some Dijon or grainy mustard, some nice havarti or swiss, and go to town. This would also make a great spicy hot ham sandwich. Toasting the bread will bring out the sweetness just a bit more, too.
Credit: Ryan Martin / Amazon
- Kroger Honey Ham
Our editor-in-chief Justine Sterling can’t eat deli meat while she’s pregnant, but she still took the time to smell some of the hams and give us her “smell notes.” Here’s what she said about Kroger: “Barbecue smell, much more savory than the others.” She sniffed again, this time almost like an on-duty dog at the airport, “A little more earthy! Very earthy ham.”
Here’s the crazy thing: Justine is right. In addition to being classically sweet and smoky, Kroger ham is very savory and a tad earthy. It might have something to do with the cherry powder and celery powder in the ingredients. Regardless, Kroger makes a mighty fine, thinly sliced ham that’s perfect for snacking. It comes in that perfect little tupperware container, too, making it impossible to stay away from as it sits in your fridge.
Credit: Ryan Martin / Kroger
- Buddig Honey Ham
Some other tasters wanted to disqualify Buddig because it reads more like bologna rather than ham. Technically, they’re right: Buddig is thin, almost shaved, and has a uniform color and texture like bologna. The taste is sweet and smoky, but it’s less like a deli meat and more of an alchemy of meat products. What Buddig makes me think of more than anything is Islay’s Chipped Chopped Ham. This is, admittedly, a bizarre Pittsburgh thing that I’m fond of. Isaly’s is a mixture of ham chunks and trimmings and seasoning mixed into a giant, homogenous squared loaf. It’s sliced razor thin and it’s delicious. Another Pittsburgh thing is stewing a bunch of Islay’s ham in a crockpot with barbecue sauce, and then serving it on some kind of kaiser roll or hamburger bun. Barbecue ham sandwiches rule, and Buddig makes me want to make one.
Credit: Ryan Martin / Walmart
- Great Value Black Forest Ham
Great Value ham is soft and a little bit slick, but it’s just sweet enough to not be totally devoid of flavor. Biting into it made me think of those classic submarine sandwiches you can get at corner stores in the Midwest: a roll with some cheap ham, Kraft singles, shredded iceberg lettuce, and a thin layer of mayonnaise. There’s something wonderfully decadent about a sandwich like that. Before ballin’ on a budget was ballin’ on a budget, it was a submarine ham sandwich.
Credit: Ryan Martin / Walmart
Best of the Best
Best Ham Sandwich
Best Hot Ham and Cheese
Best with Mustard
Best for Snacking
Best for Barbecue
Best Ballin’ on a Budget
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Thoughts? Questions? Complete disagreement? Leave a comment!
open to the idea that i may just be a low class individual but my favorite deli ham is the big re solidified honey ham rectangles often sold by the store brand
Ugghh..Buddig has a weird gritty taste..I loved it as a child though as that was all we could afford.
PS.. I have found Amazon Fresh Uncured black forest ham in a sealed little plastic package quite amazing!
Kretschmar’s Off the Bone Ham is not available pre-packaged, but that is not a criteria in the title of the article. It is hands-down the best store-bought ham I’ve ever tasted and it straight-up tastes like leftover holiday ham. It is available at Save Mart, but I don’t believe it’s exclusive to them. Their Off-the-Bone turkey and roast beef, are excellent, but the ham is Special.