How to Buy Ham
Photo Illustration: Getty Images/Rachel BeenSelecting a ham to buy should be easy, right? It would be if only there weren't so many different products labeled "ham." The terminology doesn't have to be confusing, though. Here is all you really need to know.
HAM TERMSHam is a butchering term. It's the name for the hind leg of a pig (see diagram). Because the majority of hams are cured, a preserving technique that turns the meat a distinctive pink color, the typical cured (and pink) version is what most people think of when they hear the word "ham."
It is possible to buy a fresh ham -- meaning a leg that hasn't been cured -- but you'll likely need to place a special order. (A cult following for artisanal and heritage pork has increased the popularity of fresh hams but they're still hard to come by in most supermarkets).
A picnic ham is not a true ham at all, but a cured cut from the lower portion of the shoulder of a pig (see diagram). It's easy to mistake a picnic shoulder for a real ham because the picnic looks similar to a shank end of ham, but there isn't as much meat on a picnic shoulder and what's there has more connective tissue.
CURING HAMIn general, hams are either cured or cured and also smoked. The curing process further divides the field into wet cures and dry cures. Wet-cured hams are often called city hams or baked hams; dry-cured are known as country or Smithfield-type hams.
Wet cures are brines containing water, salt, and sugar; sodium nitrate is often added to achieve that distinctive pink color and to help protect against food-born pathogens. These days, hams are injected with brine, which adds to the ham's weight. The process yields juicy, moist meat, so if that's what you're going for, pick a city ham. It's the most common type in the supermarket meat case.
Dry-cured or country hams are rubbed with salt and slowly smoked, then hung in a well-ventilated area to dry out further. A country ham is the opposite of juicy: Because most of its liquid has been removed, the meat is dense and the flavor is concentrated. Cooking a country ham is a project: It has to be scrubbed and soaked in water over several days, then cooked in liquid, and finally glazed in the oven. It's a lot easier to buy one fully cooked. In the South, where it's a specialty, country ham is served in thin slices between halves of split, hot, buttered biscuits.
SMOKING HAMSeveral different types of woods are popular in smoke houses. Hickory and pecan are old favorites but fruit woods, especially applewood has been gaining in popularity. In some ares, corn cobs provide the fuel.
BONED VERSUS BONE-IN HAMIn the supermarket you'll find hams sold bone-in or boneless. Boneless may be easier to slice, but the bone adds flavor and makes for a more dramatic presentation. Be sure to look for and remove the little round of plastic that manufacturers often place over the bone before sticking your ham in the oven.
WHOLE VERSUS HALF HAMA whole ham is one big hunk of meat that lasts a long time -- perhaps a little too long if you aren't entertaining a large crowd. Half hams are what you'll mostly see at the supermarket; online mail order is your best bet for a whole ham. Half hams are either butt end or shank end. The butt end is a little more expensive and tends to be larger than the shank end. Although there is plenty of debate over which is preferable, I'm in the shank-is-better camp: I find it easier to carve, with less connective tissue.
READY TO EAT VERSUS PARTIALLY-COOKED HAMBe sure to read ham labels closely. Some hams say "ready-to-eat" or "fully cooked," which literally means you can open the package and serve the ham right away, while others may say "ready to cook," "partially cooked" or "cook before eating." Even if you can eat a fully cooked ham straight out of the package, the ham will look and taste so much better if you reheat it to an internal temperature of 140 F. A partially cooked ham needs to be heated to an interior temperature of 160 F. Fresh hams need to be cooked to 160 F. as well.
SPIRAL SLICED HAMSpiral sliced hams come pre-sliced, which is no doubt a boon to the host. However, you might be trading convenience for texture; the slices tend to dry out a bit around the edges, which is why it's often not recommended to reheat them.
THE RIGHT HAM FOR YOUR TASTEIf you want a mild city ham, try Cook's hams. This is one of the more readily available brands in the supermarket and you can also order from cooksham.com.
If you want a sweet city ham, try one from The HoneyBaked Ham Company (honeybakedonline.com).
If you love a smoky-flavored city ham, try Edwards bone-in "Tender Smoked" whole baked ham, available from virginiatraditions.com.
If you want a smoky country ham for biscuits and red eye gravy, do yourself a favor and go for a fully-cooked country ham from Edwards, also available from virginiatraditions.com. (If you don't want to be saddled with a whole ham, go for the uncooked Virginia ham slices.)
More from KitchenDaily: See our Guide to Cooking Ham.