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Everything You Need to Know About Ham

Fine Cooking Issue 128
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If Normal Rockwell had painted Easter dinner instead of Thanksgiving, he clearly would have nixed the turkey and gone with a ham. After all, a ham marks a celebration, a crowd, and good times. But there’s no need to wait until the bunny hops along-a ham makes a terrific centerpiece anytime this spring. Below, we’ll explain how to shop for one, cook it, and deal with the leftovers, if you’re lucky enough to have any.


Cider-Braised Ham with Ginger-Lime Glaze Roasted Ham with Cherry-Chutney Glaze Roasted Ham with Spicy Pineapple Glaze
Cider-Braised Ham with
Ginger-Lime Glaze
Roasted Ham with
Cherry-Chutney Glaze
Roasted Ham with Spicy
Pineapple Glaze

Ham-atomy lesson

What is a ham exactly?

Where it comes from: A ham is the hip and upper portion of the back leg of a pig, boar, or other porcine, four-legged animal.

Put simply: It’s the rear end, the hindquarter, the tuchus of a pig, plus a bit more down the leg for good measure. It doesn’t have to be cured; it needn’t be smoked. It must never be garnished with maraschino cherries.

What it is not: The front shoulder of a pig (which is often mislabeled as ham). Nor is it the poorly named Boston butt (from the front of the animal). And it’s certainly not the even-more-poorly named picnic ham (again, from the front).

More specifically: When it comes to the iconic, center-of-the-table ham, we’re actually referring to a “city” ham, which is a ham that’s been wet-cured and hot-smoked. (Country hams, which are dry-cured and often smoked, are an entirely different matter.)

Ham Ham

To market, to market…

As you ponder the city hams in your supermarket’s meat case, questions may arise. Here are the answers.

Whole or half?

Whole hams are big hunks o’ meat, sometimes weighing more than 20 lb. Even if you’re feeding the entire choir from church, you still want to buy a half ham, which will run from 6 lb. to 10 lb. (or at most, two half hams, which will cook more evenly than one whole ham).

Butt or shank?

City hams are typically cut into two parts, or halves: the butt end (from up on the hip) and the shank end (from down on the leg). While the shank end is the iconic ham-the one Norman Rockwell would have painted-its meat is a bit chewier because the muscles in the shank end got a workout hauling the pig around all day.

The butt end is harder to carve because of its more complicated bone structure, which includes the hip’s ball and socket and the aitch bone, but that doesn’t bother us (and it won’t bother you, either, if you follow the carving tutorial below). Thanks to those bones, meat from a butt-end ham is more tender and its fl avor porkier. This end also has distinct sections-fatty and lean-so your guests can take their pick.

Spiral sliced?

No way.
A precut ham can dry out and shard unappealingly when roasted. When braised, the liquid can seep between the slices, causing them to bloat and fall apart. Precut hams may be convenient, but we’d rather practice our carving skills and enjoy better texture in our meat.


Absolutely not!
Serving a preglazed ham for dinner is like going to the opera in week-old makeup.

Water added?

“Water added” refers to the routine injection of city hams with water to keep them moist. “Water product” is an approved labeling device for a solution that can include “natural flavors”-often MSG and other chemical delights-as well as various flavorings. We’d prefer to add our own moisture with delicious ingredients like apple cider and not pay for extra water weight.

Natural juice added?

Check the other ingredients on the label. Does it say “a solution of up to 10% … ?” You don’t want those hams, or the ones with added sugars or oils. If it’s been injected with “natural pork juices,” then we might consider it if we were looking for a super juicy-and very salty-ham. But we typically skip all this fandango because we don’t need any extra salt in our ham, which is usually what those injected additives are bringing to the table.


Heavens, no!
We want the deep savory notes that we get from cooking our ham on the bone. Plus, we want that bone for making Bean & Ham Bone Soup later in the week.

How big?

A half-pound per person.We also like to add on an extra pound for every fourth person, erring on the high side for leftovers insurance. So, if you’re 10 at the table, start with a 7- to 8-lb. ham.

Home again, home again…

Two ways to cook a ham

We have two favorite methods–roasting and braising–and please don’t make us choose between them.

But let us back up a bit. Since city hams are hot-smoked, they’re already cooked through when you buy them. For flavor and food safety reasons, you still need to reheat a city ham before you serve it. So which method will it be?

Roasting yields a firmer texture (although still plenty juicy) and concentrates the ham’s flavors.

Braising makes the ham more succulent and luxurious by adding moisture. It also draws out more salt, yielding a flavor that’s a bit porkier.

Either way, cook it cut side down. Too many people cook city hams with the cut side exposed, which dries out the meat. We always cook our ham cut side down.

Glaze the ham to add a delectable outer layer that contrasts with the sweet, salty meat. A glaze also lets you flavor your ham to your taste (see the tasty glaze options opposite).

Forget the gravy. The drippings from a city ham are too salty to use in a successful gravy (although any glaze that drips off the ham into the pan is fair game). Instead, serve a range of condiments at the table, like chutney, creamy horseradish, relish, and/or grainy Dijon mustard.

Armed with all of this porcine knowledge, you’re now ready to create your own Norman Rockwell moment this spring. Yes, you’re going to have to figure out how to keep smiling as your great aunt tells you for the 20th time that Richard Nixon didn’t seem like a crook when she dated him. But hey, we can’t do everything for you.

Carving lesson

How do you cut it up?

Set the ham cut side down Slice down about 1 inch beyond the carving fork Set the chunk on its freshly cut side
1 2 3
Begin making 1/4-inch-thick slices Cut off smaller sections of ham
4 5
  1. Set the ham cut side down with the exposed aitch bone facing you. Use a paring knife to probe along the top of the ham, moving away from you, to locate where the bone ends inside the meat; it should be at about 11 o’clock, slightly left of center.
  2. Remove the paring knife and replace it with a carving fork to hold your place. Using a carving or chef’s knife, slice down about 1 inch beyond the carving fork, removing a large chunk of ham.
  3. Set the chunk on its freshly cut side, then slice it 1/4 inch thick.
  4. Set the remainder of the ham on its freshly cut side and begin making 1/4-inch-thick slices from the face of the ham starting at the side farthest from the exposed bone. Work your way around the ham, thinly slicing the meat.
  5. Eventually, you will reach the complicated part of the bone structure; here, cut off smaller sections of ham that can be sliced into manageable chunks and bits.


Lucky Leftovers

If you’re fortunate enough to have leftover ham, skip the sandwiches and use it to make these delicious meals.

Bean & Ham Bone Soup Indonesian-Style Ham Stir-Fry Rice and Lentils with Ham
Bean & Ham Bone Soup Indonesian-Style Ham Stir-Fry Rice and Lentils with Ham


Slideshow: 13 Ideas for Leftover Ham

Photos by Scott Phillips
Illustrations by Martha Garstang Hill


Leave a Comment


  • humperdink | 04/19/2014

    I would like to try a piece.

  • anibanani | 04/16/2014

    What is the easiest or best way for a left handed person to cut a ham up? Just turn it around?

  • user-3004457 | 04/14/2014

    It would like a video of the carving techniques.

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