My friend Paula begged this baked ham recipe from a lady who runs a diner in Athens, Georgia. The lady agreed to give it to her but only after making Paula swear she’d keep it to herself. But Paula couldn’t resist telling me, in part because it’s so ridiculously easy: Put a whole, fully cooked, smoked ham in a roasting pan. Put a lid of foil on it, but not tight, sort of caddywhumpus, so it doesn’t get too crusty on the outside but does take on a little texture. Put the ham in a 275°F oven. Do nothing else to it for as long as eight hours. Take it out of the oven and let it rest while you bake the biscuits (you have to have biscuits). Carve and serve.
This ham is so good that during parties I have to make sure no one’s around when I carve it because folks will flat-out pull the thing to death.
The only hard part about this recipe (and it’s only hard if you don’t live in the South) is finding a whole, fully cooked, smoked ham, preferably not spiralsliced and not glazed. I find most glazes sickeningly sweet and beside the point if you want to actually taste the ham.
But which ham to buy?
A ham is defined most broadly as the hind leg of a pig. Most hams are cured, smoked, or both, for preservation and flavor. (A fresh ham is not cured; it’s simply fresh pork.)
A whole ham is perfect for the holidays; it feeds a crowd easily. Most supermarkets north of the Mason-Dixon Line don’t stock whole hams year-round. (What you will find are half hams—whole hams cut into shank and butt portions.) But during the holidays you can usually find whole hams no matter where you live. And with Easter coming late this year, there’s still time for you to hound your butcher into stocking some whole hams, which weigh up to 20 pounds and can easily feed 25 people. Your best bet, however—both for availability and for flavor— may be to mail-order your ham.
But the beauty of this recipe is that you don’t need to buy the best ham. The best ham, after all, is a real country ham, which means the ham has been dry-cured in salt, smoked, and aged for at least six months. But country ham is scarce in spring, and many people find it too salty to act as the main course of a meal anyway. What you’re looking for instead is a “city” ham. It usually comes sealed in plastic (not in a can), has been cured (but not dry-cured) and smoked (but not necessarily aged), and is fully cooked (it says so on the label).
Because these hams are “wet-cured” (soaked in a brine or, if mass-produced, injected with one), they contain added water (meat is already made up of about 75% water). The National Pork Producers Council grades these hams on a water-to-protein ratio; generally, the more protein, the better the ham. A ham cured without added water, such as a country ham, must have at least 20.5% protein, and will simply be labeled “ham.” A ham labeled “ham with natural juices” must have at least 18.5% protein, and one labeled “water added” 17%. The ham to avoid is the kind labeled “ham and water product.” These hams have less than 17% protein and can in fact be much less than that. But go ahead and choose a “water added” ham; I find that added moisture is actually beneficial to the long, gentle reheating I’m suggesting. I haven’t tried this method on a “ham with natural juices.” But as with all of these hams, which have instructions that generally recommend that you heat them at 350°F for 15 minutes per pound, I think this gentler method would work better.
A bone-in ham has the best flavor, texture, and shape. I think meat tastes best when cooked on the bone. (And a ham bone is serious kitchen currency; save it—you can freeze it—to make the best bean soup.) A partially boned ham is next best; it looks like a big football, but it’s easy to carve, and if you’re carving in the kitchen, no one will see its funny shape anyway. Fully boned hams can have an off texture because the meat, once it’s been pulled off the bone,
Be sure to make biscuits
Slices of sweet, salty, smoky ham piled on a platter are a wonderful addition to a buffet. I love it with collards cooked in ample olive oil and baked sweet potatoes. And biscuits.
Most southerners grew up, as I did, eating lard biscuits—light and flaky but seldom bigger than a silver dollar. But there exists a biscuit that we used to see only on special occasions, such as a birthday breakfast or a holiday morning. What sets these biscuits apart is that they’re bigger and they’re made with butter in place of the lard—which seemed extravagant when I was a child but now seems oddly conservative.
You’ll get the best results with soft southern flour. Literally soft to the touch, southern flour is made from the soft winter wheat that grows down South. It has less protein than northern flour, which means it forms less gluten and is therefore more tender. A decent substitute is to use half (by weight) all-purpose flour and half cake flour.