How to pick out the best holiday ham

You know spring has sprung—and Easter’s on its way—when  you can’t round a corner at the supermarket without running into a colossal display of hams. At its most basic, ham is the thigh from the hind leg of a pig. Why so many choices, then? Hams in gold foil. Hams in netting. Vacuum-sealed hams. Canned hams. Thawed hams. Frozen hams. Fresh unsmoked hams and aged country hams.

And no discussion of hams would be complete without mentioning the ubiquitous “spiral cut” hams that have been making would-be carvers sigh with relief for over 50 years.

How’s a consumer supposed to negotiate all the options?

Here’s our best advice: Buy a ham that’s as natural-looking as possible, indicating it’s been minimally processed. The USDA classifies hams this way:

  • Ham – Fresh hams and country hams, both dry and salt-cured, fall into this category;
  • Ham With Natural Juices – A bit of liquid accompanies hams that have been wet-cured. Our first choice.
  • Ham – Water Added – The protein content goes down as the water content goes up, meaning that per pound price may not be as good as it looks.
  • Ham and Water Product – This is the “Frankenstein” of hams typified by the canned hams of our misguided youth. They contain more water (or other liquids), and are always a mish-mash of boned and molded pork muscles from (usually) many animals. Pineapple rings pinned on with whole cloves cannot save this ham. Our last place finisher.

Cooked or Uncooked?

With the exception of fresh hams and country-style hams, such as the popular Smithfield ham from Smithfield, Virginia, nearly all hams sold in the U.S. are cooked, safe to eat as is without any reheating.

Of course, a cold ham doesn’t have the same appeal on the Easter table as a properly reheated ham, perhaps crusted in sugar or a sweet glaze, oozing juices, and promising superior flavor. The key is to slowly bring it to 140 degrees F, preferably in a moisture-protected environment like foil or a covered roasting pan.  We prefer a medium temperature—275 or 300 degrees F. The time required to reheat it will depend on the ham’s size, but feel free to contact us if you are uncertain. (Because the ham is already smoked, Traeger owners, there’s no need to smoke it a second time.)

If you do opt for a fresh ham—which will not have the pink hammy color that comes from curing in nitrates and nitrites—be sure to cook it to at least 145 degrees F. Ditto for a country ham, which has been cured, but not cooked. You can find instructions for preparing and cooking a country ham on the internet.

Bone-in Or Boneless?

Despite our advice above to select a ham that’s been minimally processed, we do recognize why a person might opt for a boneless ham over a bone-in ham.

A boneless ham is obviously easier to slice, though you won’t have that glorious ham bone for making bean soup once the meat has been carved off the joint. No problem. Simply smoke 2 or 3 fresh ham hocks on your Traeger and proceed with the soup!

An unsliced bone-in ham is obviously trickier for the person wielding the knife. But it is not rocket science.

Here’s how: Using a carving fork, steady the ham on the cutting board or platter, shank end (where the leg gets skinnier) toward your right. Cut a few thin slices from the side facing you, then stand the ham up on what is now its flat, more stable side. Make a series of parallel cuts downward toward the bone. Free the slices by running your knife under the slices following the line of the leg bone.

Of course, the convenience of a spiral-cut ham—invented by the founder of Honey-Baked Hams but imitated by many producers—is not in dispute. The only thing you have to be careful of is this: A spiral-cut ham has no exterior fat and much more surface area than an uncut ham: It has a tendency to dry out if not foiled during cooking. You can add moisture to the foil during the reheating process to encourage a juicy result. (Apple or pineapple juice are popular “moisturizers”.)

Other Tips:

  • If a whole ham would overwhelm your family’s needs, you have the option of buying a half ham. Even here, there’s a choice: the shank end or the butt end. Some people like the shank end, arguing it has less bone and is easier to carve. Others believe the butt end, because it’s thicker, is less likely to dry out and tastes better. We vote for the butt end, because we’re still thinking ham bone soup thoughts.
  • If you buy a frozen ham, be sure to allow it enough thawing time in the refrigerator—anywhere from 24 to 36 hours, depending on its size. Do not put a frozen ham on your Traeger.
  • If buying a whole ham, buy one that has an ample mantle of fat on it—at least 1/4-inch thick. Another option is to buy an untrimmed ham: This will still have the exterior skin on it, which always brings to mind those Norman Rockwell-esque images of diamond-shaped cuts, each one studded with a whole clove. If your ham is untrimmed, the carver will have a bit more work to do at the table, but the resulting meat should be incomparably moist thanks to the protection of the fat and skin.
  • A sweetish glaze compliments a ham nicely. Apple, orange, apricot, pineapple, and cherry are fruits whose flavors marry well with ham. Introduce them in the form of preserves, juice, or a blend. Maple syrup, honey, brown sugar, agave, sweet tea, and even root beer or cola are options, too.
  • Although we don’t recommend “re-smoking” an already smoked ham, you can use almost any flavor pellet with the possible exception of Mesquite.