Serving a holiday ham may seem like an easy choice. That is, until you get to the grocer.
That's when you discover the often overwhelming variety of hams, leaving you to guess at the best choice.But understanding a few ham basics can make your selection much easier.
A true ham is the leg of pork that comes from the hind of the hog. This is the best choice for slicing and serving. To confuse matters, the front leg, called the pork shoulder picnic, often is cured and called ham, as well. These hams tend to have more internal fat, making them better suited for dishes such as soups and stews.
Most true hams are cured in salt or salt water and sometimes sugar. After curing, American hams are smoked, then partially or fully cooked.
A few small U.S. producers still make traditional country hams, which are salt-cured, then cold-smoked over smoldering fires. This type of ham must be thoroughly cooked and is extremely salty.
Most of the hams carried by mainstream grocers are fully cooked.
Here's what you need to know:
When selecting a ham, figure on buying 1/4 to 1/3 pound per person if boneless, 1/3 to 1/2 pound per person if partially boned, and 3/4 to 1 pound per person for bone-in hams.
You can store a ham, unopened, in the original packaging for 7 to 10 days. For longer storage, you can freeze a ham, in the original packaging, for up to 3 months.
Fully cooked or ready-to-eat hams can be eaten with no further preparation. They are available with or without the bone, or partially boned.
While the bone adds flavor during cooking, it can make carving more difficult. Regardless of the bone, fully cooked hams can be purchased in a variety of sizes.
Meat expert Bruce Aidells, author of "Bruce Aidells' Complete Book of Pork," says that a whole, 10- to 20-pound bone-in ham is the most flavorful and least wasteful cut. It can serve 15 to 20 people with leftovers, and the bone can be used as you would a ham hock, for seasoning soups and bean dishes.
For smaller groups, Aidells recommends buying a smaller section of the ham. The butt-end, which is the upper part of the leg, tends to have more meat than the smaller shank end, which is lower on the leg.
Partially cooked or ready-to-cook hams are made using traditional smoking and curing techniques and have been heated to at least 137 degrees during some part of the processing.
Aidells says that because these hams are minimally processed they usually have superior flavor and texture.
Fresh hams haven't been cured or cooked. They must be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. These are sometimes found alongside other pork roasts, but you may need to special order them.
Spiral-cut hams, which usually are fully cooked and available with or without the bone, have become increasingly popular, in part for their ease of serving. But that may be where the advantages end.
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Here's what you need to know for your best holiday ham. (Photo: National Pork Board)