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Main Category:  Meat & Poultry
Days:  Weekends, Entertaining, Holidays
Meal:  Dinner
Primary Ingredient:  Pork
 

 

Ham 101

Print Version

Perfect for Holidays and Big Group Entertaining

What's the difference between a fresh ham, a cured ham, and a pre-cooked ham?

A ham is a piece of pork that comes from the rear leg of a pig.  A fresh ham is one that hasn't been cured or smoked.  This means it is raw pork that must be completely cooked, which depending on the size of the ham, can take about 5 hours.

What most of us know as ham -- whether it's the sliced boiled ham in a deli sandwich or the large piece of meat studded with cloves and covered with rings of pineapple -- is in fact a lean cut from the rear leg of a pig that has been cured or smoked.  The curing or smoking process is what gives ham its salty, smoky and distinctive taste. 

A pre-cooked ham is just as the name suggests.  It has been completely cooked either by baking, curing or smoking and in the hands of the home cook, simply has to be re-heated to an appetizing serving temperature so that its flavor is at its best. This is also sometimes called a city ham.

A ham may be the whole leg or half but what most of us think of as a baked ham is almost always a half leg, a piece of meat that weighs about 9 pounds.

Picnic hams, which come from the lower part of a hog's shoulder, are smoked and technically fully cooked.  But because they have more fat than the leaner, pre-cooked hams we commonly buy, they need some extra cooking and not just reheating.   

How are hams cured?

Hams are cured using a dry salt rub, a wet brine, or else are smoked.  Certain specialty hams, as Italian prosciutto di Parma, or Spanish Serrano hams, are salt rubbed and hung to air cure for a year or more and eaten raw in paper thin slices.

What is a country ham?

Also known as a Virginia, Tennessee or Kentucky ham, these are dry-cured (meaning with a rub), smoked and also aged for a period from a few months to more than a year.  The best known country hams are Smithfield hams from Virginia.  Smithfield hams are sold by mail order or via the internet unless you live in the south where they can be bought in supermarkets.

Because country hams are cured using a salt rub, they must be soaked and then slowly cooked in water prior to being baked.  Even with this type of cooking, the flavor remains salty.

What kind of pre-cooked hams do home cooks usually buy?

The hams sold in many supermarkets and better butcher shops are half hams that usually have been smoked.  They contain a center bone and are sold in two versions:  the rump or butt end or the shank end. 

Popular and good quality brands to look for include Karl Ehmer, Cook's, Berkshire (their products are all heritage breeds), and Niman Ranch (also heritage breeds).  A half ham will weigh about 9 pounds and will easily feed 8.

Some home cooks buy from producers not only because of the quality and flavor of their hams, but also their humane pig-raising practices.  These include Flying Pigs Farm and Monte's Ham, both New York farmers.  See our link to Flying Pigs Farm, a much loved New York producer who sells direct as well as at Manhattan's Union Square and Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza Greenmarkets.  Monte's Ham can be found at montesham.com.

Many home cooks think that a bone-in ham has more flavor than a boneless.  It may be trickier to carve, but the taste advantage is usually worth the trouble.

There is no consensus on which cut of ham to buy.  The butt end is usually leaner meat and has a more rounded top; the shank end may be larger and is usually more pointed or tapered in appearance. Cook's Illustrated recommends the shank end because it has more meat and less connective tissue around the leg bone.  Many butchers recommend the butt end saying it has better flavor and is meatier.  You may need to just try both cuts and decide for yourself.

Look for a ham that has a bright pink color and a consistent appearance.  Avoid any with marbling or non-uniform color.  Some pre-baked hams are sold in cans but because you can't see what you're buying, these should be avoided.

If you want to be sure you'll get what you want and when you want it, call your butcher in advance and place an order.

What is a spiral ham?

A spiral cut ham is pre-cooked and has been pre-cut into continuous slices, each of which is about 3/8-inch.  The ham still has a center bone but the pre-cutting makes it very easy to serve equal size pieces.  The pre-cutting spares the home cook the task of slicing it, which is very convenient if the ham is part of a buffet or other large dinner.

What about nitrates?

Hams that are brine cured are either soaked in or injected with a mixture that is usually made up of water, sugar, salt and sodium nitrates.  After a few days the brine is rinsed off, and the ham is then cooked and sometimes smoked.  The amount of nitrates in ham is regulated by the USDA who says that their standards of ham having no more than 200 parts per million of nitrates is safe. 

How does a home cook bake a fresh ham?

Because a fresh ham is completely raw pork, it must be thoroughly cooked.  Some recipes first cook the ham in simmering water for about 3 hours, then finish it in a 300º F oven for 2 to 3 hours more.

Other recipes cook the ham entirely in the oven, at 325° to 350 ºF, for about 5 hours in total (18 to 20 minutes per pound) with the glaze added for the last hour of cooking.  

A fresh ham should be cooked until its internal temperature reaches 160° to 170 ºF.

How is a pre-cooked ham finished?

Since baking a pre-cooked ham is primarily about re-heating and adding flavor, the process almost always includes adding a flavorful glaze.  Glazes usually include some sugar and can be made with pineapple juice, cider, pomegranate juice, the syrup from a can of peaches, or even a can of Coca Cola or Dr. Pepper.  If you use this type of sugary glaze, don't add it until the last hour or so of cooking or else it can burn.

When re-heating a pre-cooked ham, it should be heated until the internal temperature reaches about 140º F, a level that will protect against any bacteria, although because it has been pre-cooked, there should be little to no risk of bacteria. 

When buying a pre-cooked ham, avoid ones that have added water.  If a label says that water has been added, the ham may include as much as 35% water.

A picnic ham is technically fully cooked but because of its extra fat, it needs additional baking to achieve its full rich and meaty flavor and best texture.  Bake covered in aluminum foil in a 325° F oven for 2 to 3 hours, depending on the size of the ham, until the ham reaches an internal temperature of 140° F.  Glaze and then finish, uncovered, in a 450° F oven for another 20 to 25 minutes until caramelized.

Save the ham bone to flavor a split pea soup and if possible, save a few pieces of the meat to add to the soup.

What's the nutritional info on ham?

Ham is relatively low in fat and has only about 150 calories per 3-ounce serving.  Depending how the ham has been cured or cooked, however, it can be very high in sodium, especially if had been cured with a salt rub.  Being an animal protein, ham also contains cholesterol and saturated fat.  Some hams are specifically leaner and thus will have lower levels of fat and calories. 

How do I store a ham?

A pre-cooked ham that you've bought at the supermarket or from a butcher can be refrigerated in its original packaging for up to a week.  After the ham has been baked it will keep, in the refrigerator, for an additional week to 10 days. 

Freezing ham is usually not recommended because its texture and taste can deteriorate.  But you can turn any leftovers into a savory pea soup and then freeze the soup.

Sources: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, MarthaStewart.com, Field Guide to Meat by Aliza Green

 
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