The Food Lab: How to Pick and Cook a Holiday Ham

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.


[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Though I'm more of a Prime Rib fancier myself, a great holiday ham can be a perfectly pleasant centerpiece for the holiday table. There are 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.

What Is a Ham?

Long Story Short:

City ham: buy a bone-in, spiral-sliced, shank-end ham.

Country ham: buy a Benton's.

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, or smoke. Asides from undergoing significant textural and flavor differences, 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.

  • 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.

Country vs. City: Which one is better?

When most people think of ham, they're thinking of city hams. These are the moist, pink hams that you eat in thick slabs. In certain parts of the country (mainly Virginia, Tennessee, and all through Appalachia), country hams are more prominent. 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.

While country ham devotees are a zealous bunch, do make sure that you know what you're getting yourself into before you commit to one for the holidays.

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

Water Content of City Hams

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.


Asides from taking on water during the brining phase, hams are often injected with additional brine before packaging 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.


If the label says nothing but "Ham" on it, as is the case with the ham we bought from Harry and David, the ham 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.


Moving on down the list, we come to "Ham, water added," which must contain at least 17% protein, and at most 10% added water by weight. Finally, there's "Ham and water product," which 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.

But there were a couple of other factors that weighed into the tastings.



Boneless hams, like the one pictured above, 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 testing in our Prime Rib Primer, 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.


The other type of boneless ham is the one that 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.

Which End?

You've still got two more key decisions to make. First is which end of the ham you want. 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.

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 a shank end cut.

Finally, there's the choice between spiral cut and whole. 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 are careful about the way you cook it, a spiral-sliced ham will be just fine. I usually opt for spiral hams.

The Best Choice


A smoked country ham.

So there you've got it. Your best option is a bone-in, spiral-sliced, shank-end hamlike the one we tasted from Harry and David if you're going for a city ham. For country ham, Benton's makes a fabulous one, and it's available mail order.

How To Cook A City Ham

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 have a hot centerpiece for the table.

Just like beef, chicken, or any other meat, hams can overcook, leaving them dry and stringy. Since they are 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.

Want to go one step further? Cook it in a water bath, beer-cooler sous-vide style. The easiest way to do this is to 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 125°F, adding more boiling water as necessary to keep it hot.

You'll end up with the moistest ham you've ever had.

How to Cook a Country Ham


A soaked 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 for adding 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 even increase the soaking to two days. Afterward, you 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 with the ham covered in aluminum in a 250°F oven, possibly more if you've got an especially large ham. Allow the ham to rest for about 30 minutes, tented in foil before carving and serving.

So You Wanna Make It Pretty?

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

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.

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

Whether it's a city or a country ham, the syruping 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 and you'll help render out a bit of extra fat, paint it with some glaze, and crank the oven up to around 400. 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.


When serving country ham, slice it much thinner than I've sliced it above. Your guests will thank you. And save your bones—your beans will thank you too.