Whether it's for Thanksgiving, Christmas or another special occasion, figuring out how to cook a ham can be a daunting task. But it doesn't have to be! Cooking ham is simple, so long as you know what kind of ham you’re working with.
What is Ham?
Ham usually refers to the hind leg of a pig, which is often salted or smoked. It can be bought, cooked and served in a number of different ways, with some hams including the whole bone and leg, while others are sliced into wafer-thin pieces. Some are cured and cooked, whereas others are raw and uncured. Hams can come whole, with essentially all of the leg except the foot, or you can purchase a half ham, from either the top half (butt end) or bottom half (shank) of the leg.
The majority of store-bought hams are pre-cooked, having been wet-cured and then smoked or boiled. Since this ham is cooked, you can serve it as is, but cooking it again can yield a deliciously tender, rich meat feast.
Also known as a City Ham or Prepared Ham, this ham can be purchased boneless or bone-in. The boneless ham is easier to cut, so may be better if you’re still learning how to make ham, but bone-in ham tends to have more flavor.
Country-Cured / Dry-Cured Ham:
These hams have been salt-cured, smoked and aged, resulting in a dry but very flavorful ham. People tend to eat less of it because of its saltiness, so you may need to purchase less than with other hams. This can be eaten like prosciutto, raw and trimmed off the bone in wafer-thin slices.
Fresh ham (uncured, raw)
Ham this fresh is best obtained from a butcher, though some grocery stores may provide it too. Since this ham has not been cooked, cured or smoked at all, it'll take considerably longer to cook.
Thawing the Ham
If your ham isn’t frozen, you can skip this step. But if it is, there are several steps you can take to thaw it before cooking. You can cook ham frozen but it will need to spend a longer time in the oven, so we recommend thawing it first.
The safest way to thaw your ham is in the refrigerator. Wrap your ham, and leave it in your refrigerator at a temperature of 25 - 40 F. Store it on a plate or tray that can catch any liquid it releases as it thaws.
Thaw your ham for around 5 or 6 hours. Larger roast hams may take up to 7 or 8 hours.
Once thawed, your ham can safely be kept in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days. It can also be refrozen during this time, but be aware it may lose some texture and flavor quality.
Another way to thaw your ham is to thaw it in cold water. This is faster than in the refrigerator but requires greater care.
Fill your sink with cold water (do not use warm or hot water, as it may encourage the growth of bacteria). Put your ham in a sealed plastic bag and submerge it entirely in the water. Make sure no water can get into the bag, as this will hamper (excuse the pun!) the meat and potentially introduce bacteria.
Leave the ham this way for around 3 hours. Larger hams may take an additional hour or two.Once thawed, the ham should be cooked immediately. Do not refrigerate or refreeze meat thawed using this technique.
Glazing the Ham
This is another step you can potentially skip, but if you do want to make your ham extra-delicious as well as attractive, adding a glaze is a no-brainer. Some hams will come with a glaze packet included, but it’s easy to throw together a glaze of your own.
You’ll find glaze ideas in cook books and online, but it’s pretty easy to make one from scratch using whatever ingredients are on hand. Usually a glaze will combine the juice of a fruit (such as orange, pineapple or peach) with seasonings like ginger, mustard, rosemary or cinnamon. Honey and brown sugar are also common additions. Of course, you’re free to think outside the box and incorporate anything from marmalade to maple syrup to ginger beer to coca cola! The key is to keep it relatively simple: 4 or 5 ingredients should suffice. Sweet glazes are best-suited to wet-cured, non-salty hams, whereas tangy, sour or savory glazes are best with salted hams.
You can glaze the ham before even placing it in the oven, but the flavors may be stronger if you do it 30 minutes before the ham has finished cooking. Simply remove the ham from the oven, use a knife to score it with a grid-like pattern (this looks pretty and also helps the glaze penetrate the heart of the meat), and then apply the glaze using a spoon or brush. Then return the ham to the oven and cook until it acquires a gorgeously golden, shiny crust and an internal temperature of 160 F.
Cooking the Ham
Before starting the cooking process, make sure you have the right equipment. You'll want a sufficiently big tray or pan to hold your ham, and a sharp knife for scoring and serving. An oven-safe thermometer will help you test the internal temperature, making it easier to avoid over or under-cooking the ham, and you'll also want a brush or spoon if you're planning to apply a glaze (see above).
Preheat your oven to 330 degrees, and place your ham in your pan or tray. You can score and glaze the ham now, or do it 30 minutes before finish time (see above).
You may wish to add two cups of water to the pan, creating a steaming effect that penetrates the ham and keeps it from drying out.
Cooking time will depend on the size of the ham. We recommend cooking around 15 minutes per pound.
Country-cured / Dry-cured Ham:
As we mentioned above, dry-cured hams can be eaten just like prosciutto, by trimming the meat off the bone and eating it in thin slices. You can cook it, in theory, but because it’s already quite dry, you risk turning the meat into overly crisp leather! Some folks, however, like to pan-fry those slices. Soak the slices in water first to moisten them up a bit, place them in the pan and fry for about a minute per side. Be very careful not to overcook!
You can also slice country ham into half-inch-thick steaks and grill them, but once again, be very careful not to let them dry out.
Fresh Ham (uncured, raw):
Since fresh ham hasn’t been cured, seasoned or cooked, it’ll require more effort on your part to cook, but it also gives you the freedom to make it your own way, without worrying about which ingredients the manufacturer may have added.
You’ll want to season your ham before cooking it. Score the meat with intersecting lines to form a grid and rub it with salt, pepper and any other seasonings. If you’re planning to use a glaze, apply it a little later, after the ham has been cooking for half an hour or so, so that the salt and pepper have time to permeate through the skin and meat.
Preheat your oven to 330 F, and cook your ham for about 30 minutes per pound.