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How to Buy a Ham

Learn how to make sense of the different ham grades at the market

by Bruce Aidells

from Fine Cooking
Issue 85

Whether it's for Easter dinner or just a big family gathering, nothing is easier to make or pleases a crow quite like a baked ham. Since hams are sold fully cooked, the heavy lifting has already been done for you. All you need to do is warm it up, slice, and serve. In fact, the most complicated part may actually be the shopping. Read on for a quick course on how to choose a ham.

Watch our Video Recipe to learn how to score the ham, make and apply the glaze, and how to whip up a sauce using the pan juices.

City Ham, Country Ham

What is a ham? At its most basic, it's a hind leg of pork, but that definition doesn't tell you whether the meat has been salt-cured, brine-cured, smoked, air-dried, aged, cooked, or some combination of all of those. Ham can be prepared in numerous ways, but for the traditional Easter ham, you'll want one that's been cured with a brine, then smoked and fully cooked. These are called city hams, as opposed to uncooked country hams, which are cured by rubbing the meat directly with salt and sugar. Pretty much all the cooked hams you see in the supermarket are going to be city hams.

Making Sense of Ham Grades

Most producers today brine their hams by injecting them with a curing solution of water, salt, sugar, and usually phosphates and nitrites as well. The amount of water in the ham determines its grade, which you'll find on the label.

Ham. This highest grade of ham has a clean, delicate pork flavor and a fine, lean texture that resembles that of a chop. It's considerably more expensive than other grades, though, and your local supermarket may not carry it. Ordering by mail (see sources, below) will, of course, only add to the cost of the ham.

Ham in natural juices. This grade is somewhat confusingly named since the "natural juices" are actually added water (many hams of this grade weigh up to 10% more than their raw weight due to the extra water). These hams have a fine, meaty quality when baked, and the added water does help ensure that they stay juicy. This grade is a good value and is readily available at most supermarkets.

Ham, water added. The percentage of added water in this grade will be stated on the label (usually in fine print). A ham that says "water added--15%" means it weighs 15%  more than its raw weight.

Ham and water product. Most producers of this lowest grade pump as much water as they can into the ham, which adds weight and allows them to sell it at a lower price. If the amount of water exceeds 50%, the ham must be labeled "water and ham product," since there is more water by weight than meat.

A ham from any of these four grades will work fine for my Oven-Glazed Ham recipe (both featured below) but for the best flavor and texture, I recommend buying "ham" or "ham in natural juices."

What about spiral cut hams? See page 2. . .

Ham Recipes You Might Like

Whole Ham or Half Ham?

The two highest grades of ham are sold as either whole or half hams. For up to 14 people, a half-ham is sufficient.
The butt half is the upper part of the ham. Its meat tends to be very tender and flavorful—but it often contains part of the hip bone, which makes carving a little awkward.
The shank half is the lower part of the ham. It's easier to carve, but because the muscles in this region get more exercise, this cut is tougher and chewier.

Get Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough's tips for how to carve a ham tableside.

Bone-in vs. Boneless

I prefer bone-in hams over boneless. I find that any meat cooked on the bone has better flavor, and in the case of ham, it also has better texture. When producers remove the bone from a ham, they have to then reshape the meat (in a machine called a vacuum tumbler) so it won't fall apart when sliced. This can give boneless ham a bit of a spongy texture. And there's one more reason I like bone-in hams: the leftover bone is great for flavoring soups, beans and other dishes. If you can only find boneless ham, try to pick one that has the natural shape of the leg, which indicates that it was minimally tumbled.

Avoid Spiral-Cut

"Spiral-cut" hams are partially boned hams that have been sliced before packaging. I don't recommend them because they tend to dry out when baked, and they often come already coated with a commercial-tasting glaze.

Where can you buy quality, high-grade hams? See Resources on page 3. . .

Sources for high-grade ham

Vande Rose Farms' bone-in half ham (which Bruce Aidells helped develop) is produced without antibiotics or hormones from the Duroc heritage pork breed; it's $85 for a 7- to 8-pound ham at PreferredMeats.com.

Jones Dairy Farm's old-fashioned bone-in hickory smoked half-ham is available for $90 for a 10- to 14-pound ham (average 12 pounds).

Harrington's of Vermont makes traditional bone-in hams by smoking them over corncobs and maple; a 6-12-pound half-ham starts at $54.95.

Photo: Scott Phillips

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