Our initial research led us to think that it was a very bad idea – but that just goes to show you that relying on initial research can be a bad idea. The instructions that accompany Southern cured hams always tell you to cook them, while Italian prosciutto, German Westphalian, French Bayonne and certain other cured hams are eaten raw. What’s the difference? The amount of time that the ham is cured, and therefore the moisture content of the ham.
Rufus Brown, the cure master of Johnston County Hams of Smithfield, N.C., says that Southern smoked hams are cured for three months, while prosciutto-type hams are cured for six months or more. As a result, they are significantly drier. They are much easier to cut into very thin slices and have a buttery, slightly al dente texture that is pleasing in the mouth. Hams that have been cured for only three months are much messier to cut (it is impossible to shave thin slices) and are wet and soggy in the mouth. Cooking them according to the instructions firms them up and produces a palatable texture.
Cure Master Brown says the cooking is not at all an issue of food safety – a ham that has been cured for three months can safely be eaten raw – it is simply a moisture problem. So the answer is that you can eat your North Carolina ham like a prosciutto, you just won’t want to.