What Is Ham?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

The Spruce Eats / Lindsay Kreighbaum 

Ham comes from the back leg of a pig. A baked ham lets someone with modest cooking skills serve a large and impressive piece of meat for a holiday gathering or dinner crowd. From boneless to bone-in to spiral-sliced, the local grocery store carries a ham for any occasion.

What Is Ham?

In many parts of the world, ham is salt-cured, sometimes smoked, sometimes salted and smoked, and occasionally salted, smoked, seasoned with a dry spice rub, and hung in a cool cellar to dry for a year or more, such as the famous Smithfield country hams from Virginia.

In the United States, mass-produced supermarket hams—often called city hams—typically come brined and precooked. The brine, water flavored with salt, sugar, and other seasonings, gets injected into the meat, infusing it with flavor and juiciness while also helping to preserve it. A fully cooked ham like this will be labeled "ready to serve" or "ready to eat."

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How to Cook Ham

When it comes to preparing a ready-to-eat ham, remember that it's already been cooked. You just need to reheat it and should avoid overcooking it. For a whole ham, a low temperature of about 275 F for 12 to 15 minutes per pound should do it. Wrap it in foil to trap as much moisture as possible.

Heat a spiral-cut ham at 275 F for 12 to 15 minutes per pound. A half ham that hasn't been pre-sliced needs to heat up at 325 F for about 10 to 15 minutes per pound, and rest for another 10 to 15 minutes before you carve it. Heat a whole ham at 325 F for 10 to 15 minutes per pound, and increase ​the resting time to 20 minutes. And remember, save that bone to add flavor to other dishes.

To add a glaze, take the ham out about half an hour before the end of your cooking time. Apply the glaze with a silicone basting brush or, for a thicker glaze, a heatproof spatula, then return the ham to the oven and let it continue to cook uncovered for the last 25 to 30 minutes (or the last 10 to 15 minutes for a spiral-sliced ham, to avoid drying it out). 

What Does Ham Taste Like?

Unadorned, the slightly sweet/smoky flavor and soft texture of cured city ham tastes just like the sliced cold cuts found in the deli counter. But the mild meat readily takes on the flavor of whatever glaze you use to dress it. Fresh ham tastes similar to pork tenderloin, while dry-aged country ham is quite salty with a chewier, more dense texture.

Varieties

Ready-to-eat hams are available in both boneless and bone-in styles; a bone-in ham is superior in every way but one: ease of slicing. The bone adds flavor and moisture and enhances the presentation. Moreover, a ham bone is an exceptionally desirable piece of culinary swag. You can simmer it with black-eyed peas or collard greens (or both), use it to make ham stock or soup, or flavor slow-cooker jambalaya with it or use it for a one-pot meal like white beans and smoked ham shank.

Because bone-in hams are hard to cut, spiral-cut hams came about. Cut by a machine at the processing plant or a butcher, this technique slices a bone-in ham in one continuous spiral, leaving the meat on the bone in its original shape. Instead of carving a ham by hand, you simply cut the meat perpendicular to the bone to have perfect, consistent slices.

A basic boneless ham will be shaped like an oval and come sealed in plastic or foil. Your best bet with a boneless ham is a spiral-sliced ham because you're getting an entire quarter of a ham—either the inside or outside of the leg muscle, from the shank (bottom) or butt (top) end.

Another option is a semi-boneless ham, which has had the aitch (hip) bone and tailbone removed, leaving only the thigh bone. Semi-boneless hams come in whole or half (butt or shank).

Ham Recipes

Ready-to-eat hams don't require much kitchen know-how, but you can customize this crowd-pleaser meal with a flavorful glaze.

Where to Buy Ham

You can buy a ready-to-eat ham at any grocery store, with a variety of choices. With a bone-in ham, first, decide whether you want a whole ham or a half ham. A whole ham is the entire cured leg of pork, including the thigh bone, part of the pelvic or aitch bone, and sometimes a section of tailbone as well. This feeds up to 20 people. For serving ease, look for a spiral-sliced one.

For a smaller guest list, a half ham serves up to 10 people. Decide whether you want the top or "butt" half or the bottom or "shank" half. The butt portion is leaner and more tender, while the shank portion is a little bit tougher and fattier, but a lot more flavorful.

Specialty butchers and online retailers sell artisan hams, fresh hams, and salt-cured country hams, but these varieties generally require more effort in the preparation.

Storing Ham

The length of time you can safely store ham depends on the variety you purchase. Ready-to-eat whole hams can be stored in the refrigerator for a week in the original packaging. Ready-to-eat half hams in the store packaging should be used within three to five days, though.

A fresh uncured, uncooked ham lasts for three to five days in the refrigerator, as does a spiral-cut ham. Vacuum-sealed packaging can increase the storage time of any ham variety, though.

Leftover cooked ham should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator and eaten within three days. Most ham retains optimum quality in the freezer for only a month or two.

boneless vs. bone in ham
The Spruce Eats / Joshua Seong 

Benefits and Nutrition of Ham

A 3.5-ounce serving of ready-to-heat ham contains 133 calories and 6.2 grams of fat. It's a good source of protein but can also be quite high in sodium, with more than 50 percent daily value in one portion.