How to Cook a Ham

Lookin’ to ham it up over the holidays? Ham is a popular centerpiece at many holiday tables. Easy to cook and budget-friendly, ham can be a surefire crowd-pleaser. Different cuts of ham require specific cooking techniques. Read on for ham cooking tips to help you make the most succulent and delicious ham for the holidays.

Cuts of Ham

Ham is a cut of pork that comes from the hind leg of the animal. A whole ham—the largest type of cut—includes both the butt and shank of the leg and can weigh 10- 20 pounds, similar to the size of a large Thanksgiving turkey. Whole hams are generally sold in halves. The butt end of the ham is the upper cut of the leg and contains more fat than the shank end. Since whole hams can include the hip and pelvic bone, it may be a bit harder to carve. Find out more about pork cuts here.

The shank end, or lower leg cut, contains less fat and is not as meaty as the butt end, but is easier to carve because it only contains leg bone. Each of these cuts should be available at your local butcher or grocery store and are available bone-in, semi-boneless or boneless.

Types of Ham

There are several types of ham including fresh, cured and smoked hams. Fresh hams are cuts from the hind leg that aren’t cured or smoked. They can be cooked using the same methods you’d cook any other type of fresh pork cut and are similar in flavor to a pork roast.

Cured hams can be dry or wet cured, depending on if they’re being cured with the injection of water. Wet or brine-cured hams are most common in national grocery stores and are cured by soaking the meat in water with brining ingredients including spices, seasonings and some artificial flavorings. Wet hams are ready to eat within a week of curing and are most recognizable by their pink coloring and moist flavor.

According to Home Shopping Network chef & food writer, Chris Kohatsu, hams are easy to cook if you do it slowly. “You can poach a ham in Coca-Cola (rumor has it this was Elvis Presley’s favorite meal!) or you can slowly roast it in an oven. Just remember to score the ham with a knife–do a criss cross pattern if you like–and give yourself plenty of time. And don’t mess with the ham while it cooks!”

Smoking a ham takes place after it has been cured. Not all hams are smoked, but many are since smoking ham adds color and flavoring to the meat. Smoking ham doesn’t cook it necessarily, but assists in drying meat that’s been wet cured and imparts additional flavors and aroma to the meat.

Water Content

How much water that remains in a ham after it’s been cured and/or smoked will impact its taste and price, and can be labeled several different ways, including:

Product labeled “ham” has no water added and is very intense in flavor (think ham prosciutto). This is the priciest type of ham.
“Ham with natural juices” has a small amount of water added and is the most popular choice for a holiday meal or large family dinner.
Ham with “water added” or “water products” is more commonly used for slicing and deli meats and is the most inexpensive type of ham.

Cooking Ham

Hams can also be cooked to varying degrees before purchase. A fully cooked ham has been heated to a temperature above 147 degrees F during its processing and generally labeled “fully cooked” or “ready-to-eat”. These types of hams only require a quick reheat in the oven before serving.

A partially cooked ham has been heated to temperatures exceeding 137 degrees F but not up to 148 degrees and does require additional cooking. Most commercially processed hams are partially cooked and need to be heated to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F before cooking. The size of the ham you’re cooking will depend on how long you need to roast it for, so be sure to have a meat thermometer handy if you’re planning to purchase and serve a partially cooked ham.