A Complete Guide to Buying Ham

updated Mar 1, 2023
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Credit: Laura Rege

A succulent ham is one of the reigning centerpieces of holiday feasts, and rightly so. It’s an easy main dish with virtually no cooking required, and it serves a crowd.

But since there is nearly no cooking (depending on the type you buy), all the work of a ham lies in the choosing. How do you decide what kind of ham to get? Where do you buy it from, and what should you look for? Read on — we have the answers!

(Image credit: Stefan Amer)

What Exactly Is Ham?

Ham comes from the back leg of the animal. A whole ham is considered the entire rear leg, which can weigh up to 20 pounds. So, ham is typically sold in smaller portions.

Ham is usually salt cured in one of two ways: brined, or cured with a dry rub and hung to dry. These hams are deep rose or pink in color and can be sold ready-to-eat or may require cooking.

Some hams are also smoked after they’re cured and aged.

Always check the label — hams that need to be cooked must be labeled with cooking instructions.

How Much Ham Should I Buy Per Person?

Here’s how much ham you should buy if you’re serving it as a main course.

  • Bone-in ham: You’ll need about 1/3 to 1/2 of a pound per person.
  • Boneless ham: Buy 1/4 to 1/3 a pound per person.

There Are 3 Main Types of Ham

There are three ways that this cut of pork is usually sold:

  • Fresh ham: Uncured leg of pork; must have “fresh” as part of its name. Fresh hams have the same color and texture as a fresh uncooked pork roast and must be cooked before eating. Fresh hams are not very commonly available and not what’s typically served around the holidays.
  • Country ham is cured with a dry rub, hung to dry, aged usually for at least 6 months, and sold uncooked. It’s a specialty of the American south, and it must be cooked before serving.
  • City ham generally refers to ham that is cured by brining, sometimes smoked, and sold fully cooked. There are many different types of city ham.

What About Canned Hams?

Canned hams aren’t really hams in the sense that they are an intact cut of meat. Instead, they’re made out of scraps of ham meat, plumped full of saline, that are pressed together into the can. The taste and texture suffers, so it’s best to avoid canned hams altogether.

Credit: Meleyna Nomura

Country Ham vs. City Ham

Basically, city hams generally refer to hams that are cured by brining, sometimes smoked, and sold fully cooked. Country hams are cured with a dry rub, hung to dry, and sold uncooked.

Country Ham

  • How it’s made: Country hams that are cured with a dry rub and hung to dry.
  • Cooked or uncooked? Usually sold uncooked.
  • Smoked or unsmoked? Country hams can be smoked or unsmoked.
  • Sliced? Country hams are not sold pre-sliced.
  • Flavor and texture: Can have a funky, intensely salty flavor; drier texture than city hams.
(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

City Ham

  • How it’s made: City hams are the most common type of ham, made by brining a pork leg or injecting it with a saline solution.
  • Cooked or uncooked? City hams are almost always sold fully cooked. Since they are fully cooked, most recipes call for reheating it with a glaze. If the label advises you to cook the ham, though, always follow the directions.
  • Smoked or unsmoked? These hams are usually smoked.
  • Sliced? City hams often come pre-sliced (labeled “spiral sliced”). Sliced hams are sold fully cooked and can be eaten cold.
  • Flavor and Texture: Moist, mildly flavored.

City Ham Recipes

Buying City Hams

Most hams served around the holidays are city hams. Here’s what to keep in mind when buying one.

  • Buy bone-in ham. Yes, the bone is a little more work to cut around, but the meat is more flavorful and the hambone can be used to flavor soups and stews.
  • Check the label. City hams can be artificially plumped up with water or solutions, but this dilutes the flavor, so look for one with no added water or juices. The label should just read “ham” — not Ham, water added or Ham with natural juices.
  • Shank end or butt end? Hams can weigh up to 15 pounds, so they are usually cut into two pieces and sold separately. The butt end is leaner but has trickier bones to deal with when slicing, while the shank end is fattier and only has one long, straight bone.
  • Whole or spiral-cut? While a whole ham will remain moister than one that’s pre-cut, a properly cooked spiral-cut ham is very convenient since it’s already cut into thin slices that just need to be cut away from the bone. The choice is really up to you — while spiral-cut is much easier, if you want to have big chunks of ham, go with a whole.

Other Types of Ham

There are many types of hams, some of which are sold thinly-sliced. Here are a few of the most common.

  • Black Forest: A type of German ham made in the Black Forest region. It is typically boneless, dry-cured with spices including juniper berry, aged, and then cold smoked using local woods and sawdust.
  • Glazed: You can glaze a ham yourself, but some hams are sold pre-glazed with honey, brown sugar, maple syrup, or other ingredients.
  • Jamon Iberico: A type of ham made in Spain or Portugal usually from Black Iberian pigs or a crossbreed of Iberian and Duroc pigs. The meat is cured for at least 12 months.
  • Prosciutto: When sold in the US and other English-speaking countries, prosciutto refers to a dry-cured, uncooked, unsmoked ham from Italy (aka prosciutto crudo). Different regions of Italy have their own variations. Prosciutto is usually sold thinly sliced.
  • Smithfield: A type of country ham cured in the town of Smithfield, Virginia (although it can be made from pigs grown outside of the area). This is not to be confused with hams produced by the Smithfield meat company. Smithfield hams must be cooked before serving.
  • Speck: This is style of ham made in South Tyrol in northern Italy. It is dry brined with spices and a small amount of salt, lightly smoked outdoors, and then cured. Like prosciutto, it is usually sold sliced.