Few centerpieces are more anticipated than a perfectly pink holiday ham, glazed with a spiky coarse mustard and sweet fruit preserves, and sliced into lovely petals.
But if you’re cooking a ham for the first time, getting from the package in the grocery store to that beautiful Christmas Day dinner-table picture can seem like a daunting journey. So, for the newbie, this is our ham primer.
Choosing and Cooking Your Ham
Start with a cured or smoked (precooked) ham. (You can definitely make a fresh one, but today let’s leave that to the more experienced cooks.)
The most popular kind of ham is a city ham. Much like a brined Butterball turkey, city hams are wet-cured, injected with a mixture of salt, seasonings and curing agents. An article on Real Simple claims that “bone-in city hams tend to be moister and more flavorful than the boneless variety,” though both come ready to eat.
Country ham is favored in the south. These hams are dry-cured with a salt/seasoning rub, then smoked and aged. Real Simple explains, “salty and chewy, the intensely flavored meat is usually served with biscuits or incorporated into casseroles and salads. It’s sold both uncooked and cooked, and mostly bone-in.”
Bon Appétit recommends getting a ham with “some kind of bone in it. It will give you a sense of where to take the ham’s temperature to determine doneness (see below), plus, that leftover bone will bring a soup or pot of beans to the next level.”
According to a Rachael Ray how-to, “spiral hams cook faster because the heat penetrates better.” Either way, if you have a whole ham, be prepared to dedicate your oven to it for a good chunk of time.
Alton Brown, the lovable science-geek chef on the Food Network, recommends warming a precooked ham for three to four hours at a low temperature (250°F) under foil, then increasing the heat, adding a brown sugar/bourbon glaze and then upping the heat (350°F) for a final hour.
A classic holiday ham recipe on Chow.com estimates five hours of cooking and prep time, using a temperature of 325°F. The Neelys’ recipe is a little faster, about three hours for a 14-pound ham at 350°F. Choose a recipe that fits your time frame; remember that the ham will smell wonderful while it cooks!
Choose a glaze for your ham, usually a combination of something savory or spicy, like mustard, cloves, garlic or ginger, and something sweet, like orange juice, pineapple, fresh or dried figs or even Coca-Cola. The glaze usually goes on in the last 60 to 30 minutes of cooking. Check out our recent post, 5 Ways to Glaze a Holiday Ham, for more recipe ideas. And our FREE Holiday Ham Guide is full of glaze and recipe ideas!
Finally, carve your ham. If you have a spiral sliced ham, that’s already been done for you. If you don’t, look to a step-by-step guide like the one Jeffrey Elliot put together at Huffington Post, or this one from Hunter Lewis at Saveur.
For a video, watch Ron Stapleton from Stapleton’s Quality Meats demonstrate how to carve a holiday ham. And avoid some common mistakes, like drying out the ham or burning the glaze, by reading this tip sheet from Bon Appétit.
Free Ham Cookbook
Be sure to download our FREE “Holiday Ham” Cookbook for more tips and recipes for the perfect holiday ham dinner. Click the image below to download your copy now!
We hope these tips and resources for cooking a Holiday Ham help you enjoy cooking yours. Happy Holidays!
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