A Complete Guide to Buying Holiday Ham

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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, 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!

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There Are 3 Main Types of Ham

Ham comes from the back leg of the animal. There are three ways that this cut of pork is usually treated:

  1. 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.
  2. Cured ham – A leg of pork can be 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. Always check the label — hams that need to be cooked must be labeled with cooking instructions.
  3. Cured and smoked ham – These hams are exactly the same as cured hams with the additional step of smoking the ham.
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What About Canned Hams?

Scary-looking 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.

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City Hams vs. Country Hams

Fresh hams are not very commonly available and not what’s typically served around the holidays, so let’s focus our attention on the cured and sometimes smoked hams. These hams can generally be divided into two categories, city hams and country hams.

So what are the differences between the two? 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.

City Hams

  • 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 using this ham just reheat 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

Country Hams

  • How it’s made: Country hams that are cured with a dry rub (like prosciutto) 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)

Buying City Hams

Since the majority of hams sold are city hams and what is most commonly consumed around the holidays, we’re going to focus on the things to be aware of when buying city hams, not country hams.

  • Amount to buy: If you’re serving ham as a main course, you’ll need about 1/3 to 1/2 of a pound per person for bone-in hams. For boneless ham, buy 1/4 to 1/3 a pound per person.
  • 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.
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