How to Cook a Ham Perfectly Every Time
Our Test Kitchen experts share their best tips and tricks for how to cook a ham for holidays and special occasions. You've got this!
Looking to make a picture-perfect glazed ham for your Easter dinner? Good idea! Ham is less stressful to prepare than many other roasted meats because most are sold already cooked (and they’re usually smoked, too, which adds succulent flavor).
All you need to do is reheat and finish it off with a tasty ham glaze. Our Test Kitchen pros show you how it’s done with their best tips and a recipe to boot.
How to Choose a Ham
Before you even step foot in the kitchen or start scoping out the best ham recipes, you need to choose the right ham for your celebration. There are several types of ham available at the grocery store or butcher: city hams, country hams and fresh hams.
Styles of ham
- City ham: You can find these at nearly any grocery store. A city ham is cured through a brining process and is fully cooked.
- Country ham: Unlike a wet-cured city ham, country hams are dry-cured and often taste saltier. You’ll find mostly uncooked options when looking for country hams, though cooked country hams are also sold.
- Fresh ham: These hams are more difficult to find because they are uncured and uncooked. A local butcher will be more likely to carry these hams than your typical grocery store. When cooked, the texture will be more meaty than the slick slices you might be used to.
Boneless vs. bone-in
If you’ve ever seen a perfect oval-shaped ham at the grocery store wrapped in that familiar red netting, then you’ve seen a boneless ham. When the bone is removed, it’s easier for the meat to be pressed into that oval shape. But while convenient and easy to carve, boneless hams don’t offer quite the same results as a bone-in ham.
For the best overall taste, you’ll want to opt for a bone-in ham. Our pros look for semi-boneless, because the bone prevents the ham from drying out and adds flavor. Once you’ve carved the meat, don’t toss your leftover bone! Add it to pea soups, throw it into broth or add it to a pot of beans.
If you’re newer to cooking and carving, our Test Kitchen recommends the shank cut of ham because it’s simpler to carve. The other option—the butt—is a bit more tender, but is trickier to navigate with a carving knife. Check out our guide on how to choose the best ham before you make any decisions.
And when all else fails, ask your butcher for some advice! They are there to help you find the right cut of meat to suit your needs. Our list of butcher counter tips will help you with your first visit to the butcher shop.
These are the best holiday hams you can order, according to our Test Kitchen.
How to pick the right size ham
Knowing what size ham to purchase is as easy as doing some quick math. For a bone-in ham, you should plan for 1/2 pound per person, and for a boneless ham, 1/3 pound per person. So, if you’re cooking for 8, pick up either a 4-pound bone-in ham, or a 3-pound boneless ham. If you want leftovers, get a larger size.
How to Cook a Bone-in Ham
This ham recipe makes enough for a party or a family dinner with plenty left over—about 10 to 14 servings.
- 1 (5 to 7 pounds) fully cooked bone-in ham
- 1 cup packed brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons prepared mustard
- 1-2 tablespoons cider vinegar
- Thermometer: Yes, your ham is already cooked, but using a quick-read thermometer will help you gauge when the ham is hot inside and ready to serve.
- Roasting pan: This dishwasher-safe roasting pan from Cuisinart is one of our Test Kitchen’s picks for best roasting pans. It’s easy to clean and spacious enough for a large ham or turkey.
- Carving set: A ham is a large cut of meat to slice. Make sure you have a knife and carving fork that can help you do the job right.
Step 1: Score the ham
The first step in cooking ham perfectly for your holiday celebration is to score it. Use a sharp knife to slice 1/4-inch deep cuts in a diamond pattern across the ham.
Scoring opens up the outer layer of the ham, allowing your glaze (that comes later) to really soak into the meat and give the ham more flavor.
Step 2: Bake
Next, place the ham on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Cover with foil and bake at 325ºF for 90 minutes or so—until a thermometer reads 130º.
Step 3: Make the ham glaze
While the ham bakes, prep your glaze. In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, mustard and just enough vinegar to make a thick paste.
When the ham reaches 130º inside, remove it from the oven. With a heatproof spatula, spread the glaze over the ham. Be generous! Then finish baking, uncovered this time, for 15 to 30 more minutes. You want the ham to reach 140º inside.
Editor’s Tip: You might be wondering why the ham is glazed halfway through the process. That’s to prevent the sugar in the glaze from burning and ruining the flavor of your ham. The last 15 to 30 minutes in the oven lets the flavor permeate the meat and form a nice crust on top without cooking too much.
How Long to Cook a Ham
The amount of time that a ham should spend in the oven depends on its size. Although it may seem confusing, the general rule of thumb is the larger the ham, the less time it needs in the oven. Former Taste of Home deputy culinary editor, James Schend, compares it to riding a bike:
“At first, you have to pedal hard to get going, but once you start to move forward, then it gets easier to pedal and the faster you go. A somewhat similar concept happens: The outer portion of ham (or other meats) takes a while to heat up since it’s usually coming from a 40° refrigerator. But once the outside starts to get warm, the heat penetrates the interior, which then takes less time to heat up—so it takes less time for the middle to come up to temperature.”
In the same vein, a smaller ham will have less “momentum” than a larger ham, once you get the heating process started.
So, if you picked up a ham that’s larger than what our recipe calls for (5 to 7 pounds), keep the following guidelines in mind: For a whole, bone-in ham that’s 7 to 10 pounds, plan for 16 to 20 minutes per pound; and for a ham that’s 10 to 14 pounds, plan for 15 to 18 minutes per pound.
When you’re setting your timer, consider playing it safe with heating the ham for the lower amount of time first. When the timer goes off, check to see if the internal temperature has reached 140°, and then add more time if necessary.
How to Carve a Ham
Carving a ham can seem like tricky business, but with only one large bone to work around you’ll likely find that this is a much simpler process than slicing up your Thanksgiving turkey (or even that roast chicken you make for Sunday dinner). Follow our guide on how to carve a ham for best results, and then break out your favorite serving tray for a perfect presentation.
Tips for Making the Best Ham
- Buy the best ham you can afford: For the holidays, our Test Kitchen recommends ordering from a local butcher shop rather than grabbing a mass-produced grocery store ham. The flavor and texture tend to be more robust.
- Don’t overcook the ham: Remember, it’s already cooked. You’re only gently reheating it in the oven, so keep the temperature on the low side. Your ham may come with specific instructions for re-heating.
- Test other cooking methods: For a sweet ham steak, cook the meat as you’d cook a typical beef steak—right on your stovetop. Ham steaks are nice options when you’re serving a smaller crowd and don’t need an entire ham. If you’d prefer a more hands-off approach when it comes to learning how to cook ham, try the slow cooker. This slow-cooker ham with pineapple sauce recipe will be just as juicy as a roasted ham, without the need to glaze halfway through, or to guess at the amount of time it should cook for. A slow-cooked ham is the perfect dish to make when you need to focus on prepping other things for your gathering.
- Customize your ham glaze: This brown sugar glaze is pretty traditional (and tasty), but it’s by no means the only option out there! Try a brown sugar and pineapple glazed ham, an apricot and ginger glazed ham, an apple cider glazed ham or a honey and chipotle glazed ham if you want to expand your horizons.
- Try more ham recipes: Practice makes perfect, and we’ve got plenty of recipes for you to choose from. Between our favorite ham recipes for dinner, our best Christmas ham recipes and even smoked ham recipes, you’re sure to find a favorite. You’ll round out your knowledge with every recipe you make.