Ham holds a special place in my heart. Of all the lunch meats, ham stands out as the undisputed king. What other kind of lunch meat are you going to use to make a ham and cheese sandwich? Turkey? Whoever heard of a turkey and cheese sandwich? Okay, so turkey and cheese is actually pretty common, but ham and cheese is just so much better! But what kind of ham do you reach for? Virginia, honeybaked, or the mysterious and luxurious black forest? What is black forest ham? Why is it called black forest ham? What does black forest ham taste like? Let’s hash out the answers to these ham questions!
What is black forest ham?
Black forest ham is a dry-cured, smoked, and preserved boneless pork product that was traditionally made in Germany’s Black Forest region. Yep, that’s right, there really is a black forest and this is the ham they make there. So, why is it called black forest ham? Because it’s ham from the Black Forest aka Schwarzwald, the forested mountain region in southwestern Germany.
Black forest ham went big around 1959 when a dude named Hans Adler pioneered a black forest ham manufacturing process that included retail and mail order. Let’s all take a second to be thankful for the guy that thought of mailing people delicious ham.
How is black forest ham made?
Traditional black forest ham made in the Black Forest region is covered in spices like salt, garlic, coriander, juniper and pepper, then cured for several weeks. This gives the ham its signature black exterior. Word on the street is that back in the day, it was doused in pig’s blood, but it’s not made that way anymore. After that, the ham is cold smoked over fir or pine branches. In cold smoking, smoke doesn’t actually cook the food but rather infuses it with flavor.
As you can see, making black forest ham is a skillful, artisanal process. Black forest ham has a Protected Geographical Indication in the European Union. That means that only ham that has been made the traditional way and in the Black Forest region can be called Black Forest ham in Europe. It’s kind of like how Champagne has to come from the Champagne region of France, otherwise it’s just sparkling wine. But those rules don’t apply outside of the European Union. So places like the U.S. and Canada can just call whatever the heck they want black forest ham. If you’re buying black forest ham from a U.S. grocery store, odds are that it’s not an imported specialty product. It most likely was brine-cured and smoked or had smoke flavor added.
What does black forest ham taste like?
If you’re talking about traditional black forest ham, the fir and pine wood gives the ham a rich, smoky flavor and its deep red color. Traditional black forest ham tastes mild and smoky which serves to undercut ham’s natural sweet flavor. Black forest ham in the U.S. should still be more smoky than sweet and will usually have a black exterior surface.
Another popular ham in the U.S. is Virginia ham or country ham. Virginia ham is pretty similar to black forest ham since they’re both dry-cured and cold smoked. The biggest difference, though, is that Virginia ham is smoked with oak, hickory, and applewood instead of black forest ham’s fir and pine.
Is black forest ham sweet?
When we say that the ham is “sweet” we don’t mean like sugary sweet. This isn’t meat candy. We’re talking about some sweetness infused into the meat—think: maple bacon. Black forest ham usually does not taste as sweet as other hams, especially honeybaked. But it still has some meaty sweetness that keeps you coming back for more.