How to Choose the Best Ham to Buy for Your Next Feast
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When it comes to picking the best ham to buy for your next gathering, the choice is bone-deep.
Whether you’re planning an Easter feast, Christmas dinner or a big Sunday family meal, few main courses make an occasion feel as special as ham does. But preparing the best ham isn’t always so simple. Before you head to the store, there are many options to consider. City or country? Bone-in or boneless? And what about spiral cut? It’s enough to make your head spin. Well, worry not! We’re here to give you the scoop on the best ham to buy for your special dinner.
Psst: These are our best Easter ham recipes to make this year.
What Is Ham?
Before we get into particulars, let’s sort out what cut of meat a ham is. Ham comes from the rear leg of the pig and is then salted and dried or smoked. A whole ham can weigh 15 to 20 pounds and can serve up to 30 people. Unless you’re feeding a large crowd (or love leftover ham recipes), chances are you don’t need to purchase an entire ham. Instead, read on to find out what type of ham will work best for you.
Styles of Ham
Ham comes in three styles: city, country and fresh.
- City hams are the easiest to find at any local grocery store and the prep is easy, too. These are usually cured by brining and are sold fully cooked.
- Country hams (dry-cured and uncooked) are harder to find. Country hams are cured with a dry rub, hung to dry and sold uncooked. They may or may not be smoked and can be very salty. Understandably, they can also be rather dry. They are either served in very thin slices or soaked for 24 hours before cooking. The chewy, intensely flavored meat is an acquired taste, but country hams—including Virginia ham—have a passionate following.
- Fresh hams (uncured, uncooked) are even more difficult to find. Ask for them at your local butcher (along with these other specialty cuts of meat).
The Most Popular City Hams: Bone-in vs. Boneless
Whether you go boneless or bone-in, watch the label for “Ham,” “Ham with natural juices,” “Ham, water added” or “Ham and water product.” Hams with less water have a stronger flavor and more natural texture.
If you’re comfortable with carving, choosing bone-in ham is worth the effort. (This baked ham recipe wows every time.) The bone provides the meat with better flavor and texture. As a bonus, the leftover bone is great for making soups and stews, like this Old-Fashioned Split Pea Soup.
Bone-in hams are sold as half hams. When you opt for bone-in ham, you’ll also need to consider the part of the ham you buy.
- The shank end (or leg portion) sports that classic ham profile, so it’s a good choice for a picture-perfect table. The meat tends to be leaner and it has one long bone, which makes carving easier.
- The butt end (the top half of the ham) has more tender, fattier meat, lending a richer flavor. However, it does have a T-shaped bone inside that can be tricky to carve around. Don’t worry about that, though, because we have tips on how to carve ham perfectly.
How much to buy: Plan for 3/4 to 1 pound per person.
Editor’s tip: A semi-boneless ham—where the shank bone is removed, but the leg bone is left in—offers a win-win combination of easier carving without the loss of flavor contributed by the bone.
If convenience is more important to you than presentation and bone-in flavor, boneless ham is always an option. With this type, the bone is removed and the ham is pressed into that familiar oval shape. Boneless ham looks like a solid piece of meat because the added salt breaks down its proteins, causing it to re-form, in a sense. Obviously, this makes for the easiest carving. You won’t go wrong with this Easy and Elegant Ham recipe.
How much to buy: Plan for 1/2 pound of boneless ham per person.
What About Spiral-Cut Ham?
Generations of meat carvers have struggled to carve ham around the bone. But in the 1940s, all that changed when Harry Hoenselaar invented the spiral-slicing machine. It holds ham while an oscillating blade makes thin cuts into the meat around the bone. Now, spiral ham—precooked, precut city ham—is a heat-and-serve holiday classic.
It’s worth noting that many spiral-sliced hams come glazed, so they’re not a good choice if you’re following a specific recipe (like this gorgeous holiday ham). Be sure to read the label to make sure you’re getting an unglazed ham.
Other Common Types of Ham
The style, bone and cut of ham aren’t the only things to consider. Here are some of the other ham terms you might see in the supermarket or while browsing recipes:
- Heritage ham is a collection of pig breeds that were common before large-scale commercial pig farming became the norm. These breeds are typically raised on small farms and sold on-site, at farmers markets or online.
- Smoked ham is a fairly common way to add lots of rich flavor to a cured ham. This can be done by the manufacturer, who will clearly state so on the package, or a home cook with a smoker (learn how to smoke a ham at home). You can even reach out to barbecue restaurants in your area to ask if they offer smoked hams to-go.
- Glazed ham is a cooking technique where ham is covered in seasoned sugar, maple syrup or another sweet concoction while baking to form a caramelized exterior. Our Sugar-Glazed Ham and Maple-Peach Glazed Ham are two delicious examples of glazed ham.
- Spiced ham is a blend of finely minced cooked ham and spices that are then canned or shaped into a loaf for lunch meat. Spam is the most well-known brand of spiced ham and can be eaten hot or cold, for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Here’s everything you need to know about Spam.
Whatever type of ham you try, we’re confident you can pull it off! If you need a place to start, our Test Kitchen taste tested the best holiday hams you can buy. And if you need more tips, our experts have broken down how to cook a ham step by step.