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Whether it’s Easter or Christmas or just a family get-together, ham is a wonderful choice for dinner.  But what ham should you use and how should you prepare it?

Use this handy question-and-answer guide to help you select and prepare your baked ham for that special meal. With this guide, you will be able to identify and understand the various types of hams and select the best ham for your family. We’ll even tell you how to bake your ham.

What are the different types of hams that I should consider?

holiday ham

A ham is cured pork, specifically the entire back leg of a hog. But ham is very different than uncured pork. It’s the curing process that changes the flavor and texture of the meat. Cured hams can be either cured in brine—the most common—or dry cured. There are four major types of brine-cured hams: fresh, cured, canned but not pasteurized, and canned and pasteurized. With the exception of some dry-cured hams, any ham that is not pasteurized must be refrigerated.

     Dry cured hams are usually more expensive, are quite salty, have a unique flavor, and are not commonly used as dinner hams. A country ham is a dry cured ham that is usually heavily salted and is usually soaked to remove some of the salt before it is cooked and eaten. Dry cured hams are not generally found in grocery stores. Dry cured hams include prosciutto, serrano, and like types.

     Hams may be whole or half. A half will be labeled either as a rump half or a shank half. In some cases, a half ham has had a cut removed and is therefore a rump portion or a shank portion. A shank portion will have more connective tissue and will be less meaty.

What about water content?

     Except for dry cured hams, hams absorb moisture from the curing brine either by soaking or injection. In smoking and drying, that moisture may be removed. The government dictates that the moisture level must be indicated by the labeling. The driest product labeled “Ham” will not exceed ten percent added water. A product labeled “Ham with Natural Juices” is the next driest, then “Ham Water Added” and finally a “Ham and Water Product” which has as much as 35% water.


Should I be concerned about nitrites?

     The brine used for curing is a combination of water, sugar, salt, and sodium nitrite. After several days of curing, the ham is washed free of brine, cooked, and is sometimes smoked. According to government allowances, the finished product cannot contain more than 200 parts per million of nitrite. All processors are regularly inspected by the USDA to assure compliance.

     The nitrites used are approved by the FDA as safe in the concentrations allowed.

How do I select a quality ham?

     Hams may be one of those items where you usually get what you pay for. Mass produced, inexpensive hams may be processed in as little as twelve hours. More expensive hams may not be ready for market with less than two weeks of processing. Additionally, the best hams come from selected pigs that have been fed high protein diets prior to slaughter.

     Processors may vary the amount of salt or sugar in a ham to meet company specifications. Additionally, the smoking process may vary. When you find a ham that has the flavor that you like, stick with it.

     Color and appearance are important considerations in selecting a ham.

     Select a fresh ham that is a bright grayish-pink. Those fresh hams that have a pale, soft, watery appearance are less desirable. A fresh ham that has a greenish cast may indicate bacterial growth and should be avoided.

     Select a cured ham that has a bright pink color. A lighter-colored pink or a non-uniform coloring may be the result of improper curing or exposure to store lights. Again, a greenish cast may reflect the presence of bacterial growth. Avoid those hams that have a multi-colored appearance. It may suggest the presence of bacteria.

     Avoid those hams that have excessive marbling. These may have a greasy taste.

     The general rule is to plan on six to eight ounces of boneless ham per serving and eight to twelve ounces of bone-in ham per serving.

     It is the opinion of some that bone-in hams taste better.

How do I prepare my ham?

     Most hams, including many canned hams, require refrigeration before baking. Unless it is pasteurized and states that refrigeration is not required, keep your ham in the refrigerator.

     As with all meat products, make certain that your ham is properly baked--though a ham marked “fully cooked” does not need to be cooked again. A Kitchen thermometer is essential. Measure the baked temperature of the meat in the thickest portion of the ham and in at least two spots to make sure that the thermometer is not inserted into a pocket of hotter fat. Make certain also that the thermometer is not placed against the bone.

     To be safe, a fresh ham should be baked to 160 degrees and a cured uncooked ham baked to 160 degrees—many bacteria can survive to temperatures of 140 degrees. If you are warming a fully cooked ham, heat it to 140 degrees.

     If you are purchasing a bone-in ham, be certain of your carving skills. Carve at right angles to the bone. Let the baked ham set for five minutes before beginning to carve.

What about glazes for my ham?

     Glazes are a very nice touch for your ham.   You can make a glaze or simply glaze your ham with a jelly.   Red currant jelly is the traditional favorite followed by pineapple jelly.  Pomegranate jelly which is bright and clear and sweet is our favorite.  All three are available at The Prepared Pantry.

Dennis Weaver is the author of How to Bake,  a 250 page baking book available free online. The Prepared Pantry sells 'over 50 bread machine mixes', ingredients, and kitchen supplies. 

Copyright The Prepared Pantry and Dennis Weaver, 2004-2008.  Used with permission.

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