The mild, lightly smoky deli ham we call "Black Forest" tastes great on a sandwich, but it is a watered-down version of the real deal Black Forest ham produced in Germany. While both types use some of the same seasonings, the traditional German recipes and methods produce hams that have a denser texture and a more concentrated flavor.
True Black Forest ham is produced only in the Black Forest region of Germany, called Schwarzwäld. The method for making German Black Forest ham, or schwarzwälder schinken in German, is based on century-old recipes. In order to bear the Black Forest moniker, hams must be produced in accordance with German standards. Manufacturers must be specially licensed to produce the hams and to label them "Black Forest."
According to Adler, a leading producer of Black Forest ham, the process takes about 12 weeks. The finished product is a dense, smoky ham with a deep, rosy color and blackened crust. The curing and smoking process makes the meat safe to eat as is, even though it is considered a raw ham.
Salt and Spice
Traditional Black Forest seasoning is a usually a mixture of salt, pepper, garlic, coriander and juniper berries. Salt is the main ingredient, as it aids in the curing process and gives the ham its distinct salty, savory taste.
The seasoning mixture is applied to a raw ham, which comes from the hindquarter. The hams are dry cured, meaning salt and air are all that is necessary to preserve the meat by drawing moisture from inside the ham to its surface, where it evaporates. The hams cure for one month.
Besides acting as a preserving agent, curing also intensifies the flavor of the meat. After curing, Black Forest ham is smoked to add another aspect of flavor and aroma to the meat and to produce the ham's signature black crust.
The hams are smoked over local pine, fir or juniper branches mixed with sawdust at a low temperature, a technique known as cold smoking. The hams smoke for at least three weeks at a cool temperature, no warmer than 77 degrees Fahrenheit. The smoke turns the skin black and infuses the meat with its flavor. After smoking, the hams rest for several weeks to develop the proper flavor and texture.
American “Black Forest” Ham
In the United States, manufacturers do not have to abide by European licensing laws and may use the name "Black Forest" without following German standards. The "Black Forest" ham available in your local deli bears little resemblance to its German counterpart, but it possesses some of the same flavor notes. The American version is a cooked ham with a milder flavor and moist texture.
Black Forest deli ham is flavored by brining, or wet curing. Hams are soaked in (or injected with) a salty, seasoned solution and finished in days rather than weeks. Although the hams are infused with seasonings, the finished ham has a milder flavor than dry-cured hams because added liquid dilutes the flavor. Black Forest deli hams are fully cooked because brining alone does not make the meat safe to eat.
How to Eat Black Forest Ham
The flavor, aroma and texture of traditional Black Forest ham are best appreciated when it is served in paper-thin slices at or near room temperature. The simplest preparation is layering shaved ham atop buttered slices of dark German bread. Black forest ham also makes a salty, smoky addition to:
- Fruit and cheese boards
- Sandwiches and wraps
- Eggs, omelettes and quiches
- Vegetable and pasta dishes