There was a time when the smoky, juicy flavor of baked ham was exclusive to special occasions and holiday dinners. But today, more than half of the consumers in the U.S. serve this versatile, delicious meat at least twice a month for everyday meals, too, according to marketing research. Hams are available at your local grocery store in a variety of sizes, making it a great choice for smaller households or large gatherings. Understanding how to cook a ham isn’t difficult. With a few basic instructions, you can prepare an eye-pleasing, succulent ham every time.
A majority of the hams sold in grocery stores are smoked and fully cooked, but read the label to make sure. A fully-cooked ham makes it easier to prepare because you’re just reheating it rather than cooking it from a raw version. Hams are typically the hind-leg section. You’ll find both boneless and bone-in options, with whole, pre-sliced, and spiral-cut versions available. The two highest grades of ham are the butt half and the shank half. The butt half is the upper part of the ham and the shank half is the lower part. The butt half tends to be more tender and more flavorful than the shank half.
Most ham packages have a “sell-by” date on the label. The ham should be pink in color, with no sign of gray-colored areas indicating spoilage. Choosing the right size of ham is important. The bigger the ham, the longer it takes to cook it. Longer cooking times reduce the juiciness, leaving the ham dry and hard-to-chew. Bone-in hams are ideal for increased flavor values, and the leftover bones are great for adding flavoring to beans, soups, and other dishes. Boneless hams are easier to slice, however. Plan for a serving of about three-fourths of a pound per person for a bone-in ham, and one-fourth to one-half pound per person for boneless hams.
The diamond-like design that often appears in recipe illustrations for hams appears through a process called scoring. This technique opens up the fatty, outer layer of the ham, and allows the glaze to soak into the meat. Using a sharp knife, cut shallow, diagonal cuts about ⅓ to ¼ inch deep from the top to the bottom in one direction, leaving about 1 inch between each cut. Then, repeat the process in the opposite direction to create the diamond-shaped pattern.
A few simple touches not only add extra flavor to the ham but also create a bit of pizzazz to the final presentation. Cloves are a highly aromatic spice that originate from an evergreen tree called a clove tree. This spice is useful for a variety of recipes in either a ground or whole form. Try pressing whole cloves into the center or intersection of each diamond pattern that you cut into the ham’s surface. The flavor will seep into the ham during the cooking process, filling your kitchen with a heavenly aroma. Remember to remove the cloves before carving.
The most important step in cooking a ham is to preserve the moist texture of the meat. Place the clove-covered ham cut-side down on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Cover it with aluminum foil to prevent the moisture from evaporating. For an unsliced, bone-in ham, cook at 325 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes per pound or until the meat thermometer indicates a temperature of about 145 degrees, according to USDA guidelines. A pre-sliced or spiral-sliced ham should be cooked for about the same amount of time, but at a lower temperature of 275 degrees due to the slices allowing more moisture to escape during the cooking process. A 10-pound ham will usually take between 2 and 3 hours to reach that temperature.
Glazing a ham adds flavor, color, and texture. Some hams come with a packaged glaze that you mix with water, however, there are thousands of ways to create a delicious glaze with the flavor profile you prefer. Brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, jams, fruit juices, mustard, vinegar, and even soft drinks are common ingredients cooks use to make a glaze. Keep it traditional, and glaze your ham with maple syrup alone or using a brown-sugar-and-dijon-mustard combination. Combine sweet ingredients with spicy ones such as honey and Sriracha sauce to amp up the flavor.
Remove an unsliced, bone-in ham from the oven during its last 30 to 40 minutes to apply the glaze. For a pre-sliced ham, wait and apply the glaze when there are about 10 minutes of cook-time remaining. Remove the foil. Apply your chosen glaze liberally over the entire ham, allowing it to seep into the ham’s interior through the diamond-patterned cuts. Place the ham back into the oven to finish the cooking process. The heat should caramelize the glaze, not burn it. Remove the ham from the oven and allow it to rest for about 30 minutes before serving.
Slow cookers are also a convenient and easy way to prepare a ham. Cover the bottom of the cooker with brown sugar then place the ham, cut side down, on top of the sugar. Rub brown sugar over the exposed areas of the ham and cover. An eight-pound spiral ham should fit nicely into a seven-quart cooker, but you can trim if needed. Simmer on low for four to five hours. You can also use a smoker to prepare a flavorful ham as well. Use a dry rub of your choice. Load the ham on the middle rack of the smoker, and cook at 225 degrees for about two and a half hours, basting every 30 to 45 minutes with an acidic liquid such as apple cider or orange juice. Smoking a ham takes about 20 minutes per pound for a pre-cooked ham.
Most people use the leftovers from a home-cooked ham to make sandwiches, salads, soups, and other dishes. Never allow leftover cooked ham to sit at room temperature for more than two hours. Wrap tightly using plastic wrap, an airtight bag or container, or aluminum foil. The USDA recommends immediately refrigerating leftover ham at a temperature not exceeding 38 degrees. Eat the ham within three to four days. If you wrap it properly, frozen ham maintains its quality for up to 2 months.
When reheating ham, you should take steps to prevent additional moisture loss. Wrap the ham in foil and place in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes. Some people prefer the convenience of a microwave for reheating leftovers. Place the ham on a paper towel or a microwave-safe dish. Reheat for 45 seconds to one minute depending on the size of the ham slice, being careful not to reheat it for too long.