Whether it’s cured or smoked, fresh or prepared, glazed or country-style, ham makes for a fitting centerpiece at Easter or any other spring meal. From understanding types of ham to roasting and preparing it, here’s everything you need to know about putting this succulent, flavorful cut of meat on your table.
Generally speaking, ham refers to a hind leg of pork that’s been preserved through some method, be it curing, smoking or salting and drying. Here’s a quick breakdown.
City hams are the familiar round pink roast that most of us are familiar with from deli sandwiches and holiday spreads. Unlike fresh hams, city hams (also known as prepared hams) have been wet-cured in a solution of salt, sugar, nitrates and water. (They’ve also often been smoked afterwards.) In addition to being pre-cooked, they also frequently arrive spiral-sliced as well.
While fresh ham is delicious, we have to warn you: if you see something labeled “fresh ham,” know that it’ll be nothing like the sliced stuff you grew up devouring at the holiday table. It’s simply an uncooked leg of pork. Once you roast it, expect it to have a texture similar to that of pork loin, with a thick, crackling skin on top.
Similar to prosciutto, country hams are salt-cured and air-dried. (Often, they’re smoked as well.) This dry-curing method—which typically involves aging a ham for six months or longer—results in a ham that contains much less moisture than the other varieties, which means you’ll be working with a saltier product that will last you a much longer time. Use it to add flavor to anything from grits to biscuits.
Now that we’ve covered different ways in which ham can be prepared, let’s go through some of the different cuts and sizes you might come across at meat counters.
Buying a boneless ham means that you’ve purchased a cured piece of meat with the bone already removed. Because they lack the bone in the middle of the cut, boneless hams are very easy to carve.
While bone-in hams are much more difficult to carve, they also tend to be much more flavorful. In fact, you can save the large ham bone to add flavor to stocks or soups.
Many hams, both boneless and bone-in, have been spiral-cut using a slicing machine that cuts ham into one continuous spiral. Although pre-sliced hams add an element of convenience, they tend to be more processed. Avoid spiral hams that have “ham and water” or “ham with natural juices” listed in the ingredient label.
A whole ham encompasses of the the pork leg above the foot, and because it typically weighs 18 to 20 pounds, it can easily serve two dozen people.
More likely, you’ll want to purchase half of a ham, which is less daunting. You can either buy from the top of the leg (the wide “butt end) or the bottom of the leg (the narrower, more tapered “shank end). Or you can nab a ham steak, which is the most tender center section.
Once you’ve selected what type and cut of ham to serve, it’s time to experiment with recipes. To start, here are a few of our favorites.