Boneless vs. Bone-In Ham: What's the Difference?

Also: spiral-sliced hams, and how to make a glaze

Boneless spiral sliced ham with glaze
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A baked ham is a great option for someone with modest cooking skills who wants to serve a large and impressive piece of meat for a holiday meal. From boneless to bone-in to spiral-sliced, there's a ham for any level of culinary expertise.

What Is a Ham?

A ham is the back leg of a pig, and in many parts of the world it's 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 so.

Here in the U.S., however, your typical supermarket ham is one that's had two key things are done to it: it's been brined, and it's been cooked.

The brine is water, flavored with salt, sugar and other seasonings, which is injected into the meat, infusing it with flavor and juiciness while also helping preserve it. A ham like this is fully cooked and will be labeled "ready to serve" or "ready to eat."

Ready-to-eat hams are available in both boneless and bone-in forms, and a bone-in ham is superior in every way but one (that being ease of slicing). The bone adds flavor and moisture, and a bone-in ham definitely 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, and I just bet you could use it to make slow-cooker jambalaya. 

Either way, boneless or bone-in ready-to-eat ham is fully cooked. At a minimum, all you have to do is slice it for sandwiches or a cold platter. Or to get really fancy, heat it up. (You can even do it in a slow cooker.)

Here are three ways to serve a ham, in increasing order of difficulty.

1. Serve a Boneless Ham

The words "boneless ham" sound like they should refer to an actual ham that has had the bone removed. And usually, it does. The exception is canned hams, which are made from smaller pieces of ham (or hams) that are pressed together. These so-called "formed" hams aren't necessarily bad. If you buy sliced ham at the deli, that's usually what you're getting (albeit not from a can). But for your holiday lunch or dinner, you probably want to go with the next step up.

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. Spiral-sliced hams have been partially sliced, making them much easier to carve. Simply carve sideways across the ham and watch as your slices drop gently to your cutting board.

When it comes to heating a ready-to-eat ham, remember that it's already cooked. So you don't want to overcook it. A ready-to-eat ham is loaded with brine, so it would take a lot of overcooking to dry it out. But it can be done. The point is, you don't want to use a high temperature to reheat it. For a whole ham, a low temperature, say 275F, for 12 to 15 minutes per pound, will do it. Wrap it in foil to hold in as much moisture as possible.

2. Serve a Bone-In Ham

With a bone-in ham, first, decide whether you want a whole ham or a half ham. A whole ham is just that: a whole cured leg of pork, including the thigh bone, part of the pelvic or "aitch" bone, and sometimes a section of tailbone as well. This is a lot of ham and will serve up to 20 people.

If you want to save yourself some heartache, look for one that's spiral-sliced, as the bone can make slicing difficult, particularly the aitch bone. Spiral-sliced hams also heat more quickly (but they also go dry more quickly if you overcook them).

If your guest-list is a little smaller, a half ham will serve up to 10 people. Your decision here is whether you want the top or "butt" half, or the bottom or "shank" half. The butt portion is leaner and tenderer, while the shank portion is a little bit tougher and fattier, but a lot more flavorful.

Finally, you can also get what's called a semi-boneless ham, which has had the aitch bone and tailbone removed, leaving only the thigh bone. Semi-boneless hams come in whole or half (butt or shank).

The following heating guidelines apply to bone-in or semi-boneless hams:

For a spiral-sliced ham, heat at 275 F for 12 to 15 minutes per pound. For an unsliced half-ham, heat at 325 F for 10 to 15 minutes per pound, and let it rest for another 10 to 15 minutes before carving. For a whole unsliced ham, heat at 325 F for 10 to 15 minutes per pound, and increase ​the resting time to 20 minutes.

And remember, save that bone!

3. Serve a Glazed Bone-In Ham

At last, you get to do some real cooking! For a glazed ham, you're going to proceed as above, but half an hour before the end of your cooking time you're going to take the ham out of the oven, apply the glaze (use a silicone basting brush or with a thicker glaze, a heatproof spatula), then return it to the oven and 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). 

And what constitutes a glaze? The best glaze is one that brings together some sweet flavors and some fruity and/or pungent ones. Here's an easy example:

Brown Sugar and Mustard Glaze

  • 1¼ cups packed brown sugar
  • 1¼ cup country-style Dijon mustard
  • ½ tsp ground cloves

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl, and apply to the ham as described above about 30 minutes before the end of cooking. See? Sweet and pungent. Add some apricot jam in place of part of the brown sugar and you have sweet, fruity and pungent.

For an even simpler glaze, just brush on some maple syrup or honey. Whatever you do, don't apply your glaze too early or it will start to burn and smoke like you wouldn't believe. Here's more about how to glaze a ham.