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What Is Polish Ham Made Of?

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A charcuterie board with various sliced meats including Polish ham, cheeses, and garnishes displayed on a wooden surface.

Ham is certainly popular all across Europe. It is undoubtedly the most purchased cold cut in Poland, next to Kiełbasa krakowska sucha staropolska (old-Polish dry sausage of Kraków).

Polish ham can be both the star of dinner and a sandwich topping. It is also not lacking in salads and, of course, on zapiekanka. You can even use it as a filling for pierogi or pancakes (naleśniki). People also utilize it in gourmet cuisine as an ingredient in exquisite dishes.

So what is Polish ham made of and why do so many people love it? Let’s take a closer look at this traditional Polish delicacy.

What is the history of Polish ham?

As far back as the 16th century, the famous Polish writer Jan Kochanowski praised ham. He wrote about the smoked and salted old Polish ham, saying it was ‘good in winter, when it dries in the wind or in thick smoke.’

Stanisław Czerniecki, the author of the first preserved Polish cookbook from the 17th century, listed smoked ham as a must-have for banquets. Alongside smoked ham, cooked ham also made its way onto tables as a cold appetizer.

At the same time, pork ham was not synonymous with gourmet deli meats back in those days.

Back then, people called ham ‘szołdra‘ (to point out that the name derived from German, ‘Schulter,’ meaning pork shoulder). They linked it to the food preferences of rural Protestant communities living in Poland during that period.

However, Polish nobility preferred to indulge in more noble types of meat than pork

These were for instance beef, veal, and poultry. It might surprise you to learn that people back then used to make cold cuts from fish such as pike.

A buffet display featuring sliced bread and assorted cured meats, including salami, sausages, and Polish ham, arranged on wooden boards with garnishes.

What is Polish ham made of?

Although in the 17th century, Polish people produced deli meats from beef, lamb, and poultry, this changed in the 18th century. That’s when pork started gaining more recognition on Polish tables. In other words, people were producing various types of pork ham, sausages, and cold cuts, similar to today.

Currently, pork ham is by far the most popular, but there can also be other types of meat. In Poland, ham is officially defined a product made from the legs of farm animals such as hoofed animals, poultry, and rabbits. It can also derive from wild animals kept on farms, game animals, or from poultry breasts.

In other words, the choices are vast if you’re not a fan of pork.

Before you eat ham, it must go through the process of salting, smoking, cooking or roasting. Depending on the type of ham, it may also include extra ingredients, such as spices, herbs, or flavorings.

In times when refrigerators didn’t exist yet, and ice houses were rare, people used to smoke meat to preserve it. Wojciech Wielądko included such recipes in “Kucharz doskonały” (The Excellent Cook) in an 18th-century cookbook.

To prepare ham, the author suggests soaking the meat in a blend of salt, saltpeter, and aromatic herbs like thyme, bay leaf, basil, balm, and marjoram.

Then he tells to soak the meat in water and wine for fifteen days. After that, he advises hanging the meat in a chimney for smoking. Finally, after the smoking process, he tells us to pour over the meat with vinegar and wine, and sprinkle ashes on top of it.

What types of ham are produced in Poland?

Raw ham

People produce raw (cured) ham from pork or beef pieces. You can identify it by its unique pinkish-red hue, developed over weeks of immersion in brine and spices, followed by cold smoking.

These hams don’t undergo any cooking, but the way they’re made keeps them fresh for up to a year!

However, it significantly differs from Mediterranean basin hams. Primarily, this traditional ham isn’t air-dried like, for example, Spanish Serrano ham, but rather smoked like German ham. In Poland, they use loin much more commonly instead of leg. Also, the maturation period is unfortunately shorter.

Baked ham

Baked ham is generously rubbed with a precisely curated mix of spices before it’s cooked to perfection. It boasts a distinctively savory color, yet regrettably, it’s a rarity in Polish stores nowadays. Typically, you’ll only find this type of ham crafted in small, local, and traditional production facilities.

Juicy roast ham is a staple in Polish cuisine,  and people often reserve it for special occasions and holidays. Typically marinated with mustard, garlic, and herbs, it’s roasted to perfection and served warm as the centerpiece of a hearty meal. Any leftovers make a delicious addition to sandwiches, or you can just dice it and add it to a classic vegetable salad.

Boiled ham

People make parboiled (cooked) ham by first soaking it in a brine solution with spices, a process known as brining, and then smoking it. Following this, the ham undergoes a pasteurization process in hot water, typically at a temperature of around 70-80°C.

Additionally, you can find unsmoked varieties of parboiled ham in stores, either pressed or canned. These are shaped into specific molds after the steaming process.

This kind of ham is known for its delicate flavor and soft texture. It tastes delicious with bread, warm toast, and crispy baguette.

A polish ham roast tied with twine inside a stainless steel pot on a stove.

What are the best regional Polish hams?

Polish cuisine can be split into various culinary regions. Each region has its own way of cooking and serving dishes, even if they use similar ingredients. It’s what makes each region’s culinary traditions stand out.

Let’s take a quick look at the best and most interesting Polish hams, divided by regions.

Warmia and Masuria (a province in Northeastern Poland)

In Warmia and Masuria, affectionately known as the Land of Great Lakes, the pride lies in its hams – the aged Dylew (dylewska) and smoked Masurian (mazurska) varieties. 

Dylew ham is a rare treat and people usually reserve for special occasions. It’s a hearty ham with shank and bone, weighing between around 9 to 20 lb (4 to 9 kg). Typically, it is possible to craft 13 lb (6 kg) of product from 26 lb (12 kg) of meat sourced from trusted suppliers.

People refined the recipe for Dylew ham through trial and error, with roots tracing back to the Neman region.

Before gracing the tables, this ham matures for at least a year (sometimes up to 2 years). Even though it looks and tastes similar to prosciutto, it boasts an even richer flavor. 

Masurian ham, on the other hand, owes its unique taste to the Landrace pigs native to Poland. It’s a classic delight with a lovely pink color and a thin layer of fat that captures the essence of this breed’s meat. It gives off a delicious smoky aroma and flavor.

Podlasie (a province in Northeastern Poland)

Now, let’s talk about something special from Podlasie – their dried ham, known as “kumpiak.”

The Podlaski kumpiak is made from pork ham that’s rubbed with garlic, juniper berries, herbs, and pepper and then stuffed into a wooden barrel or box filled with salt. After chilling out for over two weeks, they rinse off the excess salt and hang the ham in a dry, breezy spot.

As the kumpiak dries, it toughens up, develops its unique flavor and color, and after all that, you can store it without a fridge for months.

Mazovia and Kurpie (a lowland territory in east-central Poland)

In Mazovia, people made homemade cold cuts to preserve meat since there were no refrigerators back then. They didn’t waste any bit of it because meat was a luxury.

Nowadays, the tradition is fading away, but there are still folks who ensure that the taste of the original products isn’t forgotten. They still make cold cuts from the old breed of Złotnicka pigs, game meat, and Polish lamb.

Greater Poland (a province in west Poland)

In Wielkopolska (that’s what we call Greater Poland), specifically in Złotniki, they’ve bred a special kind of pig called the Złotnicka pig.

Its meat is tasty, very tender, and aromatic, with lots of marbling. It’s lighter in color than meat from other pig breeds. During cooking  it doesn’t lose much volume or mass. As a result, lovers of traditional cold cuts and foreign butchers eagerly seek after this meat.

Złotnicka ham is baked in a crust made from rye flour or bread, seasoned with garlic, allspice, and bay leaf.

Is Polish ham known worldwide?

Why would the world love Polish hams? There are many reasons.

For one thing, Polish housewives have always cooked a lot and well. Meat, cold cuts, sausages, and all sorts of meat products have always graced Polish tables.

Secondly, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew the importance of meat and how to make the most of it, especially during times when food was scarce. They could turn any piece of meat into something delicious with their amazing cooking skills.

Moreover, when Poles set out into the world in search of a better life after the war and during martial law, they took their cuisine with them.

And after treating others to Polish sausages, cold cuts, and meat products, it turned out that they had no equals. Poles were producing them in small factories taking into account old, original recipes.

During the communist era in Poland, despite economic and technological standstills, people still managed to use it to good advantage.

For example, not everyone switched to modern ways of farming and processing meat when capitalism arrived. So, many kept using old recipes, using top-quality natural ingredients, treating animals well, and caring about their welfare.

Polish hams have gained value across the globe as a result.

Which countries appreciate the quality of Polish ham the most?

Although there are many countries that love Polish ham, some have really gone the extra mile to give it some special recognition. Let’s dive into them!

France – Pulawska ham (szynka puławska)

The prestigious French gourmet guide, “Guide des gourmands,” distinguished Polish Pulawska ham.

Although the main protagonists of this guide are mainly French, other countries also make an appearance.

The author of the guide, Elizabeth de Merville, tasted the ham from acquaintances in Poland. The delicacy impressed her so much that she decided to include it in her guide, which serves as a source of suppliers for outstanding French chefs.

As a result, Pulawska ham made its way to “Fauchon,” one of the most elegant delicatessens in Paris.

The entire process of producing Pulawska ham takes two weeks. They make it using traditional methods. First, they soak the meat in brine and then smoke it in a smokehouse using wood from trees like alder, oak, pear, or cherry.

The United States – Pabianice ham called ‘’Polish ham’’  (Szynka z Pabianic)

Pabianice ham found fans in the United States.

This happened thanks to Leon Rubin, a Polish Jew from pre-war Lviv. Rubin emigrated with his family to the USA, and on the occasion, he brought 220 lb (100 kg) of Polish canned ham on the ship. 

Upon arrival, he sold some of the cans to Americans and noticed that they really enjoyed the product. He conceived a great idea at that moment. He founded the Atalanta Trading Corporation and began importing Polish ham from Pabianice to America. The first cans sailed there in 1958.

Over time, Poles stopped importing ham from overseas due to competition from the Dutch and the Danes. Even so, the ham became so popular that it even made its way to the White House during the terms of Dwight Eisenhower and John Fitzgerald Kennedy.


In Pabianice, workers at the Meat Processing Plants kept raising hygiene and production standards to meet strict US requirements.

Seven years after they stopped exporting ham to the US, a construction team found a forgotten can of “Polish Ham” during the renovation of a house. The label indicated it was smoked in Poland 30 years earlier. Most importantly, when they opened it, the ham was still good to eat and tasted great!

In short, Polish ham has without doubt a rich history and will always have fans, no matter what kind of meat it’s made from. Its popularity comes from old recipes and the fact that you can use it in many different dishes.

If you have Polish ham on hand, you can try it in combination with other ingredients, I recommend the following recipes:

Polish Ham Soup Recipe – Zupa Z Szynką

Layered Salad With Ham

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