Serving a holiday ham may seem like an easy choice. That is, until you get to the grocer.

That’s when you discover the often overwhelming variety of hams, leaving you to guess at the best choice.

But understanding a few ham basics can make your selection much easier, ensuring you get the best ham to suit not only your tastes and budget, but also the amount of effort you want to invest in the meal.

A true ham is the leg of pork that comes from the hind of the hog. This is the best choice for slicing and serving.

To confuse matters, the front leg, called the pork shoulder picnic, often is cured and called ham, as well. These hams tend to have more internal fat, making them better suited for dishes such as soups and stews.

Most true hams are cured in salt or salt water and sometimes sugar. After curing, American hams are smoked, then partially or fully cooked. European hams, such as prosciutto, are salted, air dried and eaten raw.

A few small U.S. producers still make traditional country hams, which are salt-cured, then cold-smoked over smoldering fires. This type of ham must be thoroughly cooked and is extremely salty.

Most of the hams carried by mainstream grocers are fully cooked. The various names on the labels generally refer to the cut of the leg you are getting and the style of flavors used to prepare it.

Here’s what you need to know:

Planning

– When selecting a ham, figure on buying 1/4 to 1/3 pound per person if boneless, 1/3 to 1/2 pound per person if partially boned, and 3/4 to 1 pound per person for bone-in hams.

– If you hope to get your holiday shopping done early, you can store a ham, unopened, in the original packaging for 7 to 10 days. For longer storage, you can freeze a ham, in the original packaging, for up to 3 months.

Varieties

– Fully cooked or ready-to-eat hams can be eaten with no further preparation. They are available with or without the bone, or partially boned, which still have a small part of the thigh bone, but not the big joints.

While the bone adds flavor during the cooking process, it can make carving more difficult. Regardless of the bone, fully cooked hams can be purchased in a variety of sizes.

Meat expert Bruce Aidells, author of “The Complete Meat Cookbook,” says a whole, 10- to 20-pound bone-in ham is the most flavorful and least wasteful cut. It can serve 15 to 20 people with leftovers, and the bone can be used as you would a ham hock, for seasoning soups and bean dishes.

For smaller groups, Aidells recommends buying a smaller section of the ham. The butt-end, which is the upper part of the leg, tends to have more meat than the smaller shank end, which is lower on the leg.

– Partially cooked or ready-to-cook hams are made using traditional smoking and curing techniques and have been heated to at least 137 F during some part of the processing.

Aidells says that because these hams are minimally processed they usually have superior flavor and texture. Finer markets may stock ready-to-cook hams and they can always be purchased online and mail order from specialty producers.

– Fresh hams haven’t been cured or cooked. They must be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 F. These are sometimes found alongside other pork roasts, but you may need to special-order them.

Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein, authors of “The Ultimate Cookbook,” praise fresh hams for their fat and lean meat, which they say creates an excellent moist texture and superior flavor.

– Spiral-cut hams, which usually are fully cooked and available with or without the bone, have become increasingly popular, in part for their ease of serving. But that may be where the advantages end. Aidells says these hams tend to dry out. They also often are coated with a sweet commercial glaze made with processed sweeteners. Aidells says even the simplest glaze of brown sugar and mustard would taste better.

Cooking

– Fully cooked hams can be eaten cold. If you plan to bake it, heat the oven to 325 F and cook to an internal temperature of 140 F. Leftovers, or hams not in their original packaging, should be heated to 160 F.

– A fully cooked whole ham will take 15 to 18 minutes per pound to come to temperature. A fully cooked half ham will need to cook for about 18 to 24 minutes per pound.

– Partially cooked hams must be heated at 325 F to an internal temperature of 160 F. A 15- to 20-pound ham needs 18 to 20 minutes per pound. A 5- to 7-pound ham needs 20 to 25 minutes per pound.

Glazing

Any ham looks and tastes better with a flavorful glaze. Most classic ham glazes combine a sweet ingredient, such as brown sugar, maple syrup or molasses, with a contrasting flavor, such as mustard or vinegar.

The sugars in the glaze caramelize while baking, giving the ham a beautiful glossy sheen.

Before coating the ham with a glaze, make sure to score it with a diamond pattern by cutting 1/4- to 1/2-inch slashes into the surface. This looks great and provides more surface area on the ham for the glaze to stick to.

If a ham has been cured and smoked in a net bag, it may already have a pattern etched into the surface. But even these hams will benefit from being scored.

A ham can be coated with a glaze using a pastry brush or a large spoon at any point during baking, but every 15 minutes is a good rule of thumb.

A sweet glaze can certainly work well on a fresh ham; but because of the long cooking time, you will want to add the glaze toward the end so it doesn’t burn.

Carving

When carving a ham, use a very sharp knife with a thin blade. Cut only the amount you will serve, as leftover sliced ham dries out faster than larger pieces.

To carve a bone-in ham, cut a few long slices parallel to the bone, then turn the ham so it rests on the cut surface. Make perpendicular slices toward the bone and then cut along the bone to release the slices.

To carve a boneless ham, cut a few long slices to make a flat surface, then turn the ham onto the cut surface and slice to your preferred thickness.


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