How to Choose and Prepare Ham

The best method depends on the type of ham you buy.

cooked ham
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Ham may be a favorite holiday dish, but there's no good reason to reserve it for special occasions. This comparatively inexpensive and relatively easy-to-prepare meat adds welcome versatility to your menu plan. You can serve it whole as a meal centerpiece, then enjoy the leftovers for breakfast, lunch, or in a casserole for another dinner.

Ham Styles

Essentially the back leg of a pig, ham usually comes to market in two basic styles: city or country. City hams, the most common in grocery stores, tend to be wet brine-cured, are often smoked, and almost always come fully cooked. Producers of dry-cured country hams, such as Virginia or Smithfield hams, take a more artisanal approach akin to Italian prosciutto or Spanish serrano, which involves lengthy hanging in controlled temperatures. You can also purchase fresh hams straight from the farm and from some specialty grocers, though they rarely appear in regular grocery stores.

Further choices among city hams include bone-in or boneless, the shank vs. the butt end, and whole or spiral cut. You should also note the degree of added water. Hams with little to no added liquid either during the brining process or just prior to packaging taste more like meat. Beware of water-logged hams with 25 percent or more added water.

Ham Choice

For ease of preparation, choose a smoked or otherwise fully cooked spiral-cut shank on the bone. With this type of ham, you only need to reheat it, paying careful attention to the directions to prevent it from drying out in the oven. The pre-cut meat then falls off the bone with little effort. However, if you want to put your mad butchery skills to use or simply prefer a fattier piece of meat, a butt end whole city ham may suit you better.

Boneless hams often contain molded bits of pressed meat; if you prefer a boneless ham for ease of carving or any other reason, better to opt for a truly intact ham with the bone removed. More adventurous home cooks may prefer to tackle a country ham, which can require careful planning to allow for soaking time to temper the saltiness. They also often come encased in a protective layer of mold that must be removed before you cook it.

Ham Preparation

To cook a bone-in ham labeled "cook before eating," preheat the oven to 325 F. Set the ham on a rack in a shallow roasting pan, cut side down. Bake it until a thermometer registers 145 F, approximately 35 minutes per pound. Let it rest for 5 minutes before you carve it. To reheat a fully cooked ham, follow the same method but reduce the time to approximately 18 minutes per pound. For a spiral cut ham, you may need to reduce the oven time even more; loosely cover it with foil and keep a close eye on it to prevent it from drying out.

Finally, don't toss the flavor-packed hambone. Use it to make stock or ham and bean soup.