Butchers cut fresh hams directly from the carcass of a newly butchered hog and sell them refrigerated or frozen with no curing while dry cured hams are treated with a mixture of salt, sugar and saltpeter. Once the ham cures, the producer smokes it to enhance flavor.
Fresh hams are uncured pork products that are sometimes roasted and served without further processing. They are also the raw product for cured hams. Dry curing is a way of preserving meat that dates to before refrigeration. Virginia dry cured hams have a history of production dating back over 300 years as of 2015.
The best dry cured hams begin as a top quality fresh ham. Curing 100 pounds of fresh ham requires 8 pounds of salt, 2 pounds of sugar and 2 ounces of saltpeter. The process requires pressing mixed dry ingredients on the outside of the ham. Curing should take place in a refrigerated location, with more salt added halfway through the process. Curing requires 1 1/2 days for each pound of ham.
After curing the ham, the processor washes away the excess salt mixture and places it in a 50 to 60-degree environment for two weeks to allow the salt to equalize through the meat. The processor then smokes the ham for one to three days. The aging process requires 45 to 180 days at temperatures between 75 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit in an environment where insects cannot access the meat.