Learn what the different terms mean, the main types of ham available, and how to determine what size you need for your family.

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Nothing says "spring" quite like an impressive Easter ham that serves as the centerpiece on your holiday table. With its characteristic gleaming shine and umami-filled aroma permeating the dining room, it's no wonder ham is such a popular holiday staple. Planning to serve a delicious ham for your Easter brunch, lunch, or dinner? Consider this your primer on the protein—we're explaining what ham is, what you need to know about the main types of ham available to you, and how to determine what size ham you need to buy for your family.

honey glazed spiral ham on platter
Credit: Chris Simpson

Ham Basics

Ham comes from the back of a pig's leg, specifically the upper portion. It is usually cured in some way—whether by smoking or preserving (with ingredients like salt and sugar, hence the classically sweet and salty flavor combination we know and love). If it's not cured, you may see the term "fresh" on the packaging. There are a lot of factors that go into preparing a ham before it gets to the store—from type of pig, to type of wood used in smoking, to cure ingredients, and much more—so there can be a lot of variability depending on the brand. But cured ham is typically classified into one of two categories: country ham or city ham.

What Is a Country Ham?

Country hams are dry-cured, so after applying the cure to the outside of the leg, the ham is then typically aged over a six to twelve month period in a dry, temperature-controlled environment, concentrating the ham's flavor and providing a distinct saltiness. According to the USDA, this process can reduce a ham's weight by at least 18 percent. If you're familiar with prosciutto, it's a very similar process. These hams can be smoked, but that's not always the case, and they may be purchased raw or cooked, sliced or not sliced depending on your source. Country hams are typically produced in just a handful of southern states, making them something of regional specialty.

It's important to note that it's normal for these hams to grow mold as they undergo curing and aging, but this does not mean the ham should be tossed. The USDA suggests washing the country ham with hot water, and then simply scrubbing off the mold.

What Is a City Ham?

A city ham is what you will typically find in the grocery store. These hams are cured in a moist environment, which usually involves the ham being soaked in or injected with a cure solution. Not only is this process faster, but it also adds moisture to the ham and makes it more tender. In the absence of a long-term drying process, city hams tend to be milder than country hams, with a less concentrated flavor. They are often sold smoked and cooked, so all you need to do at home is reheat the ham at a low temperature (being careful to not dry it out!).

City hams can be boneless or bone-in. Boneless city hams tend to have a thin layer of fat surrounding the meat, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. While the bone-in option might make slicing more challenging, keep in mind that the bone provides lots of extra flavor that you don't want to miss out on. You'll often see the term "spiral-sliced" used to describe ham, as well; this means it's pre-sliced in a spiral-fashion, and though this may seem like an appealing option if slicing the ham yourself is daunting, it will likely make your ham more prone to drying out. If you do buy a spiral-sliced ham, be diligent with your glazing.

How to Shop for a City Ham

Assuming you're cooking for a crowd, you'll want to think about how many servings you need before determining the right size ham for the occasion. For a boneless ham, you can assume ¼-⅓ pound per serving, and for bone-in ham, you can assume ⅓-½ pound per serving, according to the USDA. Of course, you'll want to factor in that some of your guests may splurge (it's a special occasion after all!) and want more than one serving of ham. Additionally, keep in mind that ham makes for great leftovers, so it doesn't hurt to aim bigger (leftover ham and cheese sandwiches, anyone?). A half ham in the six to ten pound range is a good place to start. If you need even more than this, you can buy two ham halves and roast them side by side. Another option is to look for a whole ham, but make sure your recipe instructions align with the ham size so you don't end up with an underdone or overdone ham.

Instead of buying a ham that is pre-glazed, consider preparing your own glaze so you're in control of the ingredients' quality and flavors. If you see the term "lean" or "extra-lean" on the packaging, your ham will have less fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than a standard ham.

Food Safety Is Key

Remember to always check the label. The packaging will indicate if the ham has been precooked and simply needs reheating or if the ham is raw and needs to be fully cooked. Pre-cooked hams that have been packaged in USDA-inspected plants should be heated in a 325°F oven to an internal temperature of 140°F, and those from any other plants should be heated to 165°F. Any ham that is raw/fresh or ready-to-eat should be cooked or reheated to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F, and then rested for at least three minutes. The packaging should also state if the ham has been injected with any solutions, so be sure to look out for that information.

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