Easter is just around the corner. Ham is the traditional main dish and centerpiece for most Easter dinners. We all want the ham we place on our Easter dinner table to be delicious. Here’s what you should know about selecting the perfect ham for your family.
Ham comes from the rear leg of the pig and can weigh between 15 to 20 pounds. A whole ham will feed 30 people, so a half a ham is usually sufficient for most families.
There are three main types of ham: City, Country, and Fresh. The most common type of ham sold at the supermarket is the city ham. City hams are brine- cured (often called wet-cured) and sold fully cooked. Since they are fully cooked, most manufacturers suggest reheating the ham and adding a glaze. City hams are usually smoked and are often spiral-cut. Because of the way they are processed, city hams can be eaten cooked or uncooked.
Country hams are dry-cured, hung to dry, and usually aged six months. This is a favorite in the American south and must be cooked before it is eaten. Country hams can be smoked or unsmoked and will have a saltier taste and drier texture than city hams.
Fresh hams are uncured and uncooked. Fresh hams have the same color and texture as an uncooked pork roast. This type of ham is difficult to find in the supermarket. If you want to purchase a fresh ham, you should visit a local butcher or small farm that raises pigs.
Bone-in, Semi-Boneless, or Boneless? You can purchase either a bone-in, semi-boneless, or a boneless ham. I personally prefer purchasing bone-in. The bone gives the meat more flavor and a better texture. Bone-in hams are sold as a half a ham.
When buying a boneless ham, you might consider the following: The bone of a boneless ham is removed, and the meat is pressed into an oval shape. A boneless ham will look like a solid piece of meat because added salts have broken down its proteins and caused it to reform. Boneless hams are easier to carve but are not as flavorful as their bone-in counterparts.
A semi-boneless ham has had its tail bone and hip bone removed, leaving only the thigh bone. This cut of meat will have the flavor of a bone-in ham but will be easier to carve.
Butchers use a spiral-slicing machine to cut the meat of a bone-in ham into thin slices. Spiral-cut hams are easier to serve because there are clear cutting lines to follow. Some supermarkets will sell boneless, spiral-cut hams, but most hams cut in this fashion are bone-in. Spiral-sliced hams can dry out so they need to be baked over water and covered in foil. Instructions for this method are included in the recipe that follows.
If you purchase a bone-in ham that is not spiral cut, remember you will have to carve it. I have included carving tips below.
Shank or Butt?
You will need to consider which half of the leg you want to buy. The shank end comes from the lower portion of the leg and has the classic ham look that you want as your centerpiece. The shank will have one long bone, which makes carving easier. It is often less expensive but also has less meat than the butt end. It’s meat can be a bit tougher than the butt end, but its meat is leaner.
The butt end comes from the upper half of the leg. It has more usable meat, but its meat is fattier, yielding a more tender, juicier ham. It has a T-shaped bone, which can make carving more difficult. Heritage or Heirloom?
More chefs are using heritage or heirloom pork meat. The bloodlines of these breeds are hundreds of years old. Some names to look for are Berkshire, Tamworth, Duroc, and Gloucestershire. Heritage or heirloom hams may be available in some specialty markets, but if you want to purchase a heritage or heirloom ham, you may need to source it from local farmers or at a farmers’ market.
Smoked ham? After curing, some hams are smoked. Smoked hams are hung in a smokehouse and absorb the smoke from the smoldering fires of woods like hickory, beechwood, or maple. This process adds flavor and color to the meat and slows the process of decay. I prefer purchasing a smoked ham as I think it has the best flavor.
Smoked Holiday Ham with a Bourbon-Mustard Glaze
1 5 to 7-pound smoked, spiral-cut ham, bone in Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Place ham with the flat side of exposed meat down on a rack in a shallow pan. Add 2 cups water to the bottom of the pan. Water should not come into contact with the ham. Cover the pan and ham tightly with aluminum foil. Bake for 1 ¾ hours, or until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the ham registers at an internal temperature of 125 degrees F. For the glaze: ¼ cup honey ½ cup Dijon mustard 2 cups brown sugar ½ cup bourbon ½ teaspoon large grind black pepper In a small saucepan, combine honey, Dijon mustard, brown sugar, bourbon, and pepper and cook over medium heat until sugar melts.
Remove ham from the oven. Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees F. Remove aluminum foil from the pan and ham. Brush ham with ½ of the glaze. Bake ham for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, or until ham reaches an internal temperature of 140 degrees F, brushing with the remaining glaze after 10 minutes.
Tips on carving a bone-in ham: Place the ham cut-side down on a cutting board. Insert a fork into the ham to hold it in place. Using a sharp knife, carve down along the side of the bone, cutting the ham into 2 parts. One part will be boneless, and one will contain the bone. For the boneless section: Slice the boneless section into ¼-inch slices. For the bone-in section: Insert a fork into the ham next to the bone. Using a sharp knife, make vertical cuts into the ham, stopping when the knife hits the bone. Turn the knife into a parallel position and make one long horizontal cut toward the bone to remove the slices.
Tip for cooking ham: Ham is labeled either “Partially Cooked” or “Fully Cooked.” A smoked ham is fully cooked. To be fully cooked, the USDA requires the ham’s internal temperature reach 148 degrees F for 30 minutes. Smoking is the preferred method for accomplishing this, and it yields a very flavorful, tender ham. Whichever kind you decide to buy, it is important to strictly follow the packer’s heating instructions.
Quantity tip: When purchasing a boneless ham, allow one-half (½ pound) pound per person. When buying a bone-in ham, plan for three-quarters to one (¾ to 1) pound per person.
Cooking tip: If you purchase an 8 to 10-pound smoked ham, cook it 2 to 2 ¼ hours. For a 10 to 14-pound smoked ham, cook 3½ to 4 hours at 325 degrees F.
Carol Ann Kates is the award-winning author of cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market and Grocery Shopping Secrets. She’s an expert in how to shop, select, and store produce for maximizing home cooking outcomes and minimizing time and money spent. As a former supermarket and deli operator, Carol Ann shares grocery-insider wisdom—the same expertise you used to receive when patronizing a mom-and-pop establishment. Contact her at CarolAnn@CarolAnnKates.com and explore her website, www.CarolAnnKates.com.
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