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How to Buy a Ham

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

Fine Cooking Issue 85
Photo: Scott Phillips
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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. . .

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.


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  • nrenee | 03/06/2019

    What size ham for 4 people ? And whats better the shank or butt ?

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