Ham is a staple for most holiday dinner tables’ so it’s important to get it right. Use this guide to help select and prepare only the best holiday ham. Learn how to identify the type of ham your family will love and is easiest for you to bake and prepare. Your holiday dinner will surely be a success.

This guide is organized in a question-and-answer format for easy reference.

What Makes a Quality Holiday Ham?

As you may know, a ham is the back leg of a hog that has been cured, changing the texture and flavor of the meat. The curing process is what makes your holiday ham so flavorful and tender. You options for holiday ham include dry cured or cured in brine, fresh or canned, and pasteurized or unpasteurized and rump half, shank half, or whole hams.

Processors may vary the amount of salt or sugar in a ham to meet company specifications. Additionally, the smoking process may vary. When you find a ham that has the flavor that you like, stick with it.

What Part of the Ham Should You Buy?

You can either get a half ham or a whole ham. With a half ham, you’re getting one half of the hog leg, so you have two options: the shank half or the rump half. Typically, the shank half will have more connective tissue, making it chewy and less meaty.

What Type of Curing Do You Want in a Holiday Ham?

Most holiday hams are cured in brine, a combination of water, sugar, salt, and sodium nitrite. This makes your ham more flavorful and tender. Typically, the longer the ham is in the curing process, the better quality (and often higher the price) it will be. Brine-cured hams include fresh ham, cured ham, canned unpasteurized ham, and canned pasteurized ham. Any of these options make great holiday hams.

The other type of curing for ham is a dry-cured ham, though this more often includes prosciutto and other specialty hams that aren’t typically found at the holiday dinner table. A country ham is also a dry-cured ham. Dry curing makes the ham more salty with a unique flavor, though the salt is removed when soaked before cooking the ham.

What About the Nitrates and Water Content?

Except for dry-cured hams, hams absorb moisture from the curing brine either by soaking or injection. Your holiday ham is then washed free of the brine and cooked, smoked, or dried; so no more than 200 parts per million of nitrite remains on the ham, leaving it safe and FDA-approved.

You can select the moistness of your ham according to your taste. A product labeled “ham” will not exceed 10% added water, making it your driest selection of holiday ham. A product labeled “ham with natural juices” will be the next driest, and products labeled “ham water added” or “ham and water product” will have the highest water content at 35% added water.

What Should a Quality Ham Look Like?

Whether you choose a fresh ham or a cured ham, it should be a bright pink color with no marbling or much variation in color; the marbling will giveit a greasy taste. Stay especially away from those with a greenish cast or have a multi-colored appearance, as those signs usually indicate bacterial growth.

For fresh hams, you should select one that is a bright grayish pink rather than having a pale, soft, watery appearance because the latter will be less fresh and not as well processed.

For a cured ham, choose one that has a bright pink color. A lighter-colored pink or a non-uniform coloring may be the result of improper curing or exposure to store lights.

Does Pricing Matter?

Holiday hams may be one of those items where you get what you pay for. Mass-produced, inexpensive hams may be processed in as little as twelve hours. More expensive hams may not be ready for the market with less than two weeks of processing. The best quality hams will have longer processing to make them more flavorful and tender. Additionally, the best hams come from selected pigs that have been fed high protein diets prior to slaughter.

How Do You Plan for the Right Amount of Holiday Ham?

The general rule is to plan on six to eight ounces of boneless ham per serving and eight to twelve ounces of bone-in ham per serving.

Preparing Your Holiday Ham

Most hams, including many canned hams, require refrigeration before baking. Unless it is pasteurized and states that refrigeration is not required, keep your ham in the refrigerator.

Unless your ham is marked as “fully cooked”, be sure to properly bake your ham. Use a kitchen thermometer to measure the baked temperature in the thickest part of the ham and in two other parts to ensure you didn’t stick the thermometer into a pocket of hotter fat or against the bone. A fresh ham should be baked to 170 degrees and a cured uncooked ham baked to 160 degrees. If you are warming a fully cooked ham, heat it to 140 degrees.

If you are purchasing a bone-in ham, be certain of your carving skills. Let the baked ham set for five minutes before beginning to carve. Carve at right angles to the bone.

Glazing Your Holiday Ham

Glazes are a very nice touch for your holiday ham. You can make a glaze or simply glaze your ham with jelly. Red currant jelly is the traditional favorite followed by pineapple jelly. Pomegranate jelly, which is bright, clear, and sweet is our personal favorite. All three are available at The Prepared Pantry.

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