The Food Lab's Definitive Guide to Buying and Cooking Hams

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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The definitive guide to buying and cooking a ham. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Ham season is upon us, which means that we should all be brushing up on our cured pork knowledge. Don't know the difference between a city and a country ham? Don't know how to cook them even if you do know the difference? Don't know how to serve them once they're done cooking? Don't worry, we've got you covered. A great holiday ham can be a perfectly pleasant centerpiece for the holiday table. And there are just two keys to great ham. First, buy the right one. Second, don't screw it up. It's that simple.

Okay, here's a bit more detail on how to git 'er done.

Q: What Is a Ham?[top]

At its most basic, a ham is the rear leg of an animal (yes, you've got hams too, and nice ones, at that!), though colloquially, it's used specifically to refer to the cured hind leg of a pig starting at the shank (that's your ankle), and ending at the rump (that's your, well, you can figure that out).

Curing is the process of preserving meat through the addition of chemicals such as sugar, salt, nitrates, and/or smoke. Asides from undergoing significant textural and flavor changes, cured meats also gain increased resistance to bacteria and spoilage. Indeed, this is the reason why curing arose in the first place in the days before refrigeration. That curing makes hams taste delicious is just a happy side effect.

But there's more than one way to cure a ham!

Q: What's the difference between a city ham and country ham?[top]

Hams can be cured either via dry curing in a salt rub, or by soaking in a brine. After that they can be smoked, cooked, and/or aged in any number of ways. Italian prosciutto and Spanish jamón Serrano can be aged as long as three years before consuming raw, for instance! But today we're talking about American hams, and you'll find those in three forms:

  • City Hams comprise the majority of hams made in the U.S. These are produced either by submerging the ham in a salt water solution for several days or weeks until the salt penetrates deep into the meat, or—as is more common with inexpensive hams—injecting the brine directly into the meat for much faster penetration. They are often smoked, and usually sold fully cooked.
  • Country Hams are cured with a dry rub, much in the manner of an Italian prosciutto, and like prosciutto, they are hung to dry in carefully temperature- and humidity-controlled environments. During this phase (which lasts months), they lose a great deal of their moisture, their flavor is concentrated, and a characteristic sweet, mildly funky aroma permeates the meat. Country hams can be smoked or unsmoked, but are sold raw unless otherwise indicated on the labeling.
  • Fresh Hams are the raw rear leg of a pig. They can be cooked just like a pork shoulder, or cured at home.

Q: Country vs. City: Which one is better?[top]

It's apples to oranges, really. I personally love both.

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A spiral-cut city ham

When most people think of ham, they're thinking of city hams. These are the moist, pink hams that you eat in thick slabs, served spiral-cut at the holidays. However, in certain parts of the country (mainly Virginia, Tennessee, and all through Appalachia), country hams are more prominent. These hams are served very thinly sliced as they tend to be dryer, tougher, and saltier than a city ham. If you've never tried a country ham, be warned: they are not for everyone. Even when properly prepared, they are intensely salty, and much drier than a brined city ham. They are also much more difficult to prepare, requiring several days of soaking to make them palatable.

Country ham devotees can be a zealous bunch, but make sure that you know what you're getting yourself into before you commit to one for the holidays.

Q: How much ham should I buy?[top]

When buying a ham, you want to aim for between 1/2 pound and 3/4 of a pound per person for bone-in hams, and 1/2 pound or less for boneless hams.

Q: I've noticed that some labels for ham say "water added." What does this mean and what should I look for on the label for the best product?

The water content of a city ham, or more precisely, the amount of water added to a city ham can have a profound impact on its flavor.

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Asides from taking on water during the brining phase, hams are often injected with additional brine before they're packaged in a vacuum-sealed pouch. The idea is to bulk up the ham's shipping weight, thereby increasing profit margins. Though a ham with lots of water added may sell for less money per-pound than a no-water-added ham, you're really paying for that extra water weight. Not a wise move. Hams break down into four categories based on water content, and here's what you'll see on the label:

  • "Ham" indicates a cured pork leg that is at least 20.5% protein with no added water.
  • "Ham with natural juices" is the next level down. It needs to be only 18.5% protein, and generally has about 7 or 8% added water.
  • "Ham, water added," must contain at least 17% protein, and at most 10% added water by weight.
  • "Ham and water product," can contain any amount of added water. Check the label to see how much water is actually added to it (the ham we tasted from Cook's had a whopping 23% of added liquid!).

As far as how these different products taste, it should be obvious that the more water is added to a ham, the less "hammy" it'll be. We tasted the four different types of ham side-by-side to confirm. Tasters nearly unanimously placed the hams with the least added water at the top, and the most added water at the bottom. "Ham and water product" had a spongy texture with an unpleasantly wet mouthfeel. Plain old "Ham," on the other hand, was meaty and moist.

Q: Are boneless hams better or worse than bone-in?[top]

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Boneless hams are just that: hams in which the bone has been removed. After removal, the hams are tightly pressed into oval-shaped packages. Salt will break down some of the proteins in meat muscle, allowing them to reconnect and link with each other. That's why a boneless ham still appears as a solid piece of meat, despite having been molded into that shape.

Often, extra ground ham will be added to fill in any spaces left by the bones, though if this happens, it must be labeled on the package.

Although boneless hams are far easier to carve (just slice and serve!), the act of removing the bone seems to rob the ham of some flavor. Whether this is because the bone adds flavor itself is unclear. If you believe the results of my Definitive Guide to Prime Rib, then the bone itself transfers very little flavor to the meat.

A more likely explanation for the superiority of bone-in hams is that something in the processing cheats the ham of moisture and flavor. Perhaps it's the pressing into a football shape, or maybe something in the added water (most boneless hams are designated "ham with natural juices").

Until I get my hands on a ham factory, I won't know the answer. Suffice it to say, tasters preferred bone-in hams—the presence of a bone had an even greater influence on tasting results than water content.

Q: What about those hams that come in cans? Are they really ham?[top]

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The other type of boneless ham is the one you'll find packed into flip-top cans. These are made by pressing together scraps of cured pork, hence their mottled, perfectly symmetrical appearance. They are best avoided. Bland (and freaky looking), with a spongy, spam-like texture and oddly cratered surface, these slices sat cold and lonely on the tasting table all day while the other hams were gobbled up, garnering not much more than the occasional withering look.

Q: Hams have a shank end and a butt end. Which is better?[top]

A full ham can weigh up to 15 pounds or so—far too big for a normal family. That's why these days, hams are sold split into two halves, the shank end and the butt end (often labeled the sirloin end). The major difference between the two is that the shank end tends to contain a higher ratio of fat (which I like), and is significantly easier to carve, having only a single, straight bone to contend with.

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An easy-to-carve shank end of ham.

The butt end, on the other hand, tends to be leaner, which may be desirable for some people. It's also got a tricky little number known as the aitch-bone to contend with. Any butcher will tell you that the oddly shaped pelvic bone is one of the more difficult to work your knife around. Unless you are an expert carver or don't mind getting in there with your fingers, you'll want to opt for the shank-end cut.

Q: Are there advantages or disadvantages to buying a spiral cut vs. an uncut ham?[top]

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Spiral cut hams come pre-sliced. All you have to do is make one simple lateral cut, and the meat comes peeling off in thin layers. A whole ham, on the other hand, requires some degree of butchery skills. Whole hams have the advantage that they are less prone to drying out when cooking, but to be honest, if you're careful about the way you cook it, a spiral-sliced ham will be just fine. I usually opt for spiral cut hams.

Q: How do I cook a city ham?[top]

The beautiful thing about city hams is that they come pre-cooked. That means that if you want to, you can slice off pieces cold and eat them in sandwiches. Or you can fry it up one slice at a time for breakfast or to flavor your beans. However, if you plan on serving it whole, it's nice to do it as a hot centerpiece for the table.

Just like beef, chicken, or any other meat, hams can overcook, leaving them dry and stringy. Since they're already cooked through, your only goal is to heat it to an appropriate serving temperature. I usually aim for around 120°F. You could just throw it in a 250°F oven and hope for the best, but the edges of the spiral slices inevitably dry out. Much better is to wrap it in aluminum foil or place it in an oven bag to help it retain moisture before setting it in the oven cut-side-down. Use a thermometer to check for doneness. It should take around 2 1/2 hours.

Q: What about sous vide?[top]

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Want to go one step further? Cook it in a sous-vide water bath. Hams that come prepackaged in cryovacked bags can be cooked directly in their packaging.

Don't have a sous-vide cooker like The Anova Circulator? No problem. Use our beer cooler sous vide hack: place your ham in an oven bag, squeeze out the air and tie off the end, then place the whole thing in a large cooler set in a convenient place to reach your sink. Fill the cooler with hot water from the tap, adding boiling water as necessary to top it off to around 130°F. Seal the cooler and let it sit in a warm spot for at least four hours and up to six or eight depending on the size. Every so often, check the temperature to make sure it's hovering about 130°F, adding more boiling water as necessary to keep it hot. You'll end up with the moistest ham you've ever had.

I do not recommend cooking a country ham sous vide, as it will be far too salty.

Q: How do I cook a country ham?[top]

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A glazed country ham.

Out in the country, hams are a little more involved. There are countless ways to prepare a country ham, from slicing it into steaks for searing, chunking it to add flavor to stews, chopping it for hash—it's the American equivalent of a prosciutto, and as such, has as many culinary uses. But for the holidays, you want to roast it whole and slice it at the table.

The first step is to remove some of the excess salt. You do this by soaking the ham in a cooler filled with water at room temperature for at least a day, changing the water every few hours to both encourage rehydration, and to flush some of the salt out. For hams aged longer than a year or so, you might want to increase the soaking to two days. Afterward, dry it carefully.

From there, place it on a rack set in a roasting pan with a few cups of liquid in the bottom (Coke, Dr. Pepper, pickle juice, or just plain water all work well), cover the whole pan tightly with foil to allow the ham to steam, and set it in a 250°F oven. An internal temperature of 140°F is what you are looking for, and it'll take you around three hours to get there, possibly more if you've got an especially large ham. Allow the ham to rest for about 30 minutes, tented in foil before glazing, carving, and serving.

Q: What about glazing that ham?[top]

You've got your roasted ham, but it's looking a little anemic from its stay in that low temperature oven and you want to fancy-it up. Good on you!

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A glaze is the easiest way to do this.

Essentially a mixture of a sweetener like sugar or honey and spices like cloves and nutmeg, a glaze will give your ham that shiny, lacquered finish.

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I love Dr. Pepper and Cherry Coke, so I usually choose one of those beverages to glaze my ham, mixing it with honey and spices and cooking it down to a syrupy consistency.

Whether it's a city or a country ham, the glazing method is the same. Open the oven bag or aluminum foil when it's about 15 minutes away from being done. Score the fat into a cross-hatch patter to help render a bit of extra fat, paint it with some glaze, then crank the oven up to around 400°F. It takes about 15 minutes for the glaze to cook into the rind, during which time I paint it with more glaze at least twice or thrice.

What about leftovers?[top]

If there's one thing I know about hams, it's this: there are ALWAYS leftovers. This is not a bad thing, especially not when you've got Monte Cristo Sandwiches, Ham and Cheddar Biscuits, or Ham and Grits with Red Eye Gravy to make for brunch the next day, or Ham and Split Pea Soup and Deviled Ham Sandwiches for lunch.