A freshly baked, clove-studded ham with honey glaze and pineapple rings adorning it is something a Christmas feast cannot do without. Considered to be the ultimate sweet and savory Christmas entrée, ham is a popular centerpiece at this festive dinner table. Loved for its sweet and smoky flavor, a Christmas ham is simple to prepare, involving a classic glaze and basting in the oven, before it can be carved and served.
Ham is nothing but the hind leg of a (nine-month old) pig, from the butt end to the shank (ankle). It is available in the fresh, cured, smoked, and even canned versions. Traditionally for Christmas, people prepare the cured version. But, with a seemingly endless array of ham cuts and variations, selecting one for your festive bonanza can be nerve-wracking. Let's take a look at the different variations of ham available, and the things to be considered before choosing one.
According to the USDA, unless a ham has been specifically labeled as 'fresh', it's understood to be cured.
These hams are dry-cured and come with a moldy exterior. They've been rubbed with salt, smoked, and then dried. The unsmoked variety is also available. These hams have to be presoaked in water for days and scrubbed to wash off the salt, before they can be baked. If you fail to wash it well or simmer it thoroughly, you're sure to be in for a 'salty surprise'! The ham won't be in an edible shape. Most families don't prefer this heavily salted ham for a Christmas feast. If you want to prepare this kind, you'll have to look for it online, because grocery stores won't be keeping them.
City hams or wet-cured hams are also known as cooked hams. Most of us are familiar with this kind of ham, and it's the type that is found in all supermarkets. Cooked hams, as the name suggests, have been already cooked and are ready to eat, saving you the trouble of cooking. However, cooked also means that these hams have been wet cured (soaked in brine) and injected with nitrites, nitrates, sugar, salt, and various other preservatives. After curing, the ham is washed and then smoked with liquid smoke mist. This wet-curing process yields moist and juicy ham, perfect for serving at a Christmas dinner.
Tip: Unless you know what dry-cured ham is all about, stick to purchasing the wet-cured or city ham type.
Boneless ham, like other boneless meats, makes slicing easier; however, while bones can pose to be a hindrance during the slicing process, they impart a lovely flavor to the meat. If you don't want to be bothered by the bone, try purchasing the 'shank end' cut, which comes with only one center bone, unlike the hip and pelvic bone found in the 'butt end'. The bones can later be used to prepare a flavorful stock, soup, etc. Then, there's the semi-boneless variety that has two of the three bones removed (center bone intact) from the cut, making it easier to cut, while retaining the flavor from the bone.
Tip: As mentioned above, since the bone imparts additional flavor, purchase the bone-in version.
As with any other food item, the size of ham required will depend on the number of people dining. If you're hosting a dinner for a large number of people, like really large (35-55 people), then go for the whole ham, unless you plan to be inundated with leftovers. A whole ham will typically weigh around 18 to 20 pounds and comprises the whole hind leg of the pig―shank and butt end.
Most supermarkets only keep half (rump half or shank half) hams, so, if you want a whole, you will have to look for it online. The halves are available in both boneless and bone-in varieties. Then, there's the portioned or sectioned type, wherein smaller portions of ham are sold. However, these portions aren't so small, instead serve 10 to 15 people. According to the USDA guidelines, ¼ pound of boneless ham, ⅓ pound of little bone-in ham, and ¾ pound of large bone ham should be considered per serving.
Tip: If you're a beginner, start by preparing the sectioned ham. Move on to whole only when you've mastered the art of baking portions and halves.
The price range may vary from $40 to $140 (with no actual upper limit). Dry-cured hams are more expensive, simply because they have been cured rather slowly over a period of several months. If the ham has been traditionally smoked, it's obvious that it's going to cost way more than ham that has been liquid smoked. The longer the time devoted to its preparation, the costlier it is. Moreover, the price will also vary depending on the water added to the meat. The higher the water content in the ham, the cheaper it will cost, because you're getting less ham for that particular weight.
Tip: The cheaper the ham, the more its water content, so purchase meat labeled just 'ham' or 'ham with natural juices'. If you find it expensive, purchase a smaller cut, but don't compromise on the flavor.
These hams have been thoroughly cooked before packaging, and can be eaten as they are. However, in general, ham is reheated in the oven to a temperature of 145ºF to bring out its flavor. Use a meat thermometer to read the temperature. You will find these fully-cooked versions in all cuts, from whole ham to half to portioned. However, make sure that the label has the words 'ready-to-eat' on it, and check it for heating instructions.
Then, there are hams that are cured and are ready to cook, which means they have to reach an internal temperature of 160 - 165ºF before serving. These hams haven't been cooked completely before packaging, thus, requiring further cooking before consumption. They may also be labeled 'partially cooked'. Specific instructions will be mentioned on the packet, so read them carefully.
A wet-cured ham may be smoked or packaged without smoking. Smoking adds flavor to the meat and to achieve this, cured ham is hung over burning wood in smokehouses. However, these days, liquid smoke is used to save time, which involves spraying the meat with it to impart a smoky flavor. However, if the ham has been traditionally smoked, the label will say 'smoked', while if liquid smoke is used, its label will say 'smoke flavor added.'
This term is used for ham that has been placed under a specialized machine and sliced till the bone, in a continuous spiral. While this kind of cut makes it easier to serve, the sliced ends often get dried out during the cooking process and do not taste as good as whole or half hams. These cuts usually come with ready-to-use glaze packets, and are heated for 10-12 minutes before serving.
Ham, especially the shank end, can be quite fatty, and if you wish to host a rather health-conscious Christmas meal, the skinless shankless ham is meant for you. It is leaner with the skin and shank bone removed, to make carving easier. Nevertheless, the retained bones impart the required flavor. Peruse through the nutrition labels to get a better idea of the fat content.
Wet curing involves soaking the ham in a solution of brine, which helps preserve and increase the moisture level of the meat. However, brine is also injected into the meat to increase its water weight. So, when you check the weight of your ham, don't be quick to be happy. Check the label to find out how much of the moisture is from the ham and how much corresponds to the brine and water injected into it. If the label says 'ham with natural juices', it means 7-9% water is added to it. If it says 'ham', this means no additional water has been injected. The label 'water added' indicates up to 8 to 15% of the ham's weight is water weight, and if the label says 'ham and water product', it indicates the ham may contain any amount of water.
Bright pink-colored hams are the ideal picks, whereas excessively marbled hams must be avoided due to increased greasing. If you've found a type of ham whose flavor and texture you like, it's better to continue purchasing it. If you haven't, try out a few before you settle down for one. It's always best to consult your butcher regarding the type of ham and its preparation. He'll be able to guide you specifically.