Demystifying Ham Casing: Your Guide to the Outer Layer on Cured Ham

Ham is a cherished centerpiece on many holiday tables. As you prepare your next glazed, glistening ham, you may notice a casing or outer layer enveloping the meat. This protective shield safeguards the ham during curing and cooking.

But what exactly is ham casing made of? How does it affect the final product? In this comprehensive guide, we’ll unravel the mysteries of ham casing and how it impacts flavor texture and appearance.

What is Ham Casing?

Ham casing refers to the outermost layer or “skin” enveloping cured ham products. It forms a protective seal around the meat exterior.

On some hams, the casing appears as a thin, papery external layer. Other times, it is an opaque barrier resembling sausage casing.

Here are the key facts about standard ham casing

  • Made from collagen, cellulose or plasticized paper
  • Applied to the ham surface after curing
  • Acts as second skin to protect ham during aging, smoking and cooking
  • Controls moisture loss and shrinkage
  • Provides surface for decorative coatings like glazes
  • Removed after cooking or left on for consumption

Now let’s look closer at the materials used to make ham casing.

Ham Casing Composition

Traditionally, ham casing was made using collagen or cellulose extracted from animal parts. While still used today, various modern options now exist:

Collagen Casing

  • Made from collagen protein extracted from animal byproducts
  • Forms dense, impermeable skin around ham
  • Flexible when wet, brittle when dry
  • Must be peeled off like sausage casing before eating

Cellulose Casing

  • Made from plant-based cellulose fiber
  • Derived from cotton, wood pulp or hemp
  • Similar performance to collagen
  • Also must be removed before consuming ham

Plasticized Paper Casing

  • Made of plastic-coated butcher paper
  • Molds to ham shape when wet
  • Remains flexible when cooked
  • Typically left on ham when carved and eaten

So collagen and cellulose casings provide a protective second skin that comes off afterwards. Plasticized paper casings stick to the ham even after cooking.

Now let’s explore why ham casing is so useful.

The Purpose of Ham Casing

While it may seem unnecessary, ham casing provides several important functions:

Moisture Control – The casing forms a barrier that regulates moisture loss from the ham during curing, smoking and cooking. This keeps the meat from drying out.

Shrink Control – Ham casing helps restrict shrinkage that happens when meat proteins tighten during cooking. It maintains an attractive shape.

Protection – The sturdy casing shields the delicate cured ham from damage during processing, transport and storage.

Decoration – Casings provide a smooth, glossy canvas for decorative coatings like glazes, spices or breadcrumbs.

Identification – Branded plasticized paper casings allow easy product recognition and tamper-proofing.

So while it may seem like a superfluous extra layer, ham casing plays important roles in producing quality cured ham.

Popular Casing Types Used for Hams

Now let’s go over some of the specific casing types used on different styles of cured ham:

  • Cloth Casing – Used for specialty hams like jambon de Paris where ham is poached in cloth.

  • Beef Middle Casing – Large diameter collagen casing good for bone-in hams.

  • Fibrous Casing – Collagen casing with fibrous weave for bone-in hams.

  • Nylon Netting – Elastic netting that conforms to any ham shape.

  • Plasticized Paper – Branded paper coating familiar on spiral cut hams.

  • Stockinette – Knit cotton or mesh tubes used on picnics and cottage hams.

As you can see, casings come in a wide array of materials, weaves and formats. The options provide solutions for any type of cured ham – bone-in, spiral cut, whole muscle and more.

Now let’s look at whether the casing affects flavor.

Does Casing Affect Ham Flavor?

Most ham casings are neutral in taste and do not affect flavor. However, these factors can influence ham flavor:

  • Plasticized paper casing is slightly porous, allowing sauce and glaze flavors to permeate the meat beneath.

  • Spices applied directly to casings like peppercorns can impart subtle flavor.

  • Cellulose, collagen and cloth casings restrict sauce absorption since they are peeled off.

  • Very thick, dense casings that restrict moisture loss can cause ham to be overly dry.

So for the most part, ham casing itself does not alter flavor. But by controlling moisture and interacting with coatings, it can indirectly influence taste.

Is Ham Casing Edible?

While plasticized paper casing is edible, traditional collagen and cellulose casings must be removed before eating the ham.

Collagen and cellulose provide a protective second skin around the meat, but are not intended for consumption. Eating them would be like chewing on a rubbery, tasteless membrane.

Plasticized paper casing, on the other hand, adheres to the ham surface and remains on even after cooking. It has an innocuous taste and provides a decorative coating.

So if the casing is branded plasticized paper, it can be safely consumed. But traditionally, coatings like collagen and cellulose are peeled off to reveal the tasty cured ham inside.

The Takeaway

Ham casing provides an invaluable shield around cured ham, regulating moisture, preventing shrinkage and allowing decorative glazing. While barely noticeable when eating, it plays a vital role in producing quality cooked ham.

Different materials like collagen, cellulose and plasticized paper offer options tailored to any ham format. Now that you’re a casing expert, you can marvel in the versatility of this unassuming ham accessory.

How Ham Is Made from a Whole Pig — Prime Time


Can you eat the skin on a ham?

Yes, it is edible, and pretty damned good too. After all that’s where all the seasonings were put before you smoked it. But if you trim off the skin before slicing it, you will end up with a layer of tough, tasty skin with a thin layer of fat on one side—also tasty.

Do you cook ham with rind on or off?

If your ham has both the fat layer and skin on top, it’s called a rind-on ham. It should be scored through the tough, inedible skin to help render the fat underneath. When it’s roasted, you carve off that skin and fat layer and then slice the meat.

What to do with skin from ham?

I use ham broth for braised greens a lot. I dice up the big chunks of fat and the rind and render it for cooking. The leftover cracklings are salted and inhaled. The goo in the pan is saved for cooking beans and greens.

What is a center cut Ham?

It is more budget-friendly, but the meat tends to dry out more during cooking. The center cut usually sells in thin slices that are a half to one-inch thick from the center area of the ham. Also referred to as a ham steak, the center cut can be boneless or have a small circular bone in the center.

Is honey baked ham as good as regular ham?

The addition of honey will affect the calorie content of the food. One tablespoon of honey contributes to approximately 64 calories. In addition, the use of heat when making baked ham will reduce the quality of the honey.

How do you get a ham?

To become ham, the pork is aged, cured, smoked, and/or cooked. Hams are sold according to a few different criteria, all of which will help you when selecting one from the store: Cut: Hams are sold bone-in, partially boned, or boneless. The shank end of the ham is typically fattier while the butt end is leaner and easier to slice.

What does a ham look like?

Bland (and freaky-looking), with a spongy, Spam-like texture and oddly cratered surface, these slices sat cold and lonely on the tasting table all day while the other hams were gobbled up, garnering not much more than the occasional withering look. Q: Hams have a shank end and a butt end. Which is better?

Leave a Comment