How to Buy a Ham

Confused about how to buy a ham? We explain the terms and wording you need to know to end up with the best ham for your Christmas or Easter dinner.

A cartoon of a woman contemplating different types of ham : Kostiantyn Kobetskyi

Can we confess something? It can be intimidating to stand at the store and be confronted with countless different ill-defined words on packages and understand how to buy a ham. Spiral-sliced. Cured. Uncured. Smoked. Fresh. With natural juices. Water added. It’s enough to make you want to just walk away and order Chinese for Easter or Christmas.

Here’s the trick. You have to get curious and grasp a command of those terms on the package so you can discern what you want—or don’t want—in a ham. Here’s everything you need to know.—Renee Schettler

What kind of ham should I not buy?

Ideally, you want to buy “ham.” Not “ham with natural juices.” Not “ham with water added.” And definitely not “ham and water product.” These are the different phrases you’re going to encounter as you look at supermarket hams. Opt for plain old “ham” whenever you can. The rest also include water and, in most instances, salt. This adversely affects not just the taste and texture of the ham but your pocketbook as you’re essentially paying quite a pretty penny per pound for additives.

Spiral-sliced

Many hams come already sliced, which is typically referred to as “spiral-sliced” on packaging. Spiral-sliced often refers to bone-in hams, which tend to retain more flavor and moisture than boneless hams, which sometimes tend to take on a little something of a processed ham look and feel. There’s a slightly higher tendency for a spiral-sliced bone-in ham to dry out in the oven before serving than a bone-in ham that’s not already sliced. The trade-off is the spiral-sliced is a nice thing if you’re terrified of the spectacle of you standing in front of guests trying to gracefully hack your way around the bone come carving time. Up to you.

Smoked

Most supermarket hams have been smoked, which imbues the meat with anything ranging from barely perceptible to really-not-so-subtle flavor. Take a look at the label to see what kind of wood chips were used. Hickory is going to impart a more pronounced and bolder smokiness than applewood.

Glazed

If you’re holding a printout of our glazed ham recipe in your hand as you stand at the butcher counter, then you want to purchase a ham that doesn’t already come injected or glazed with honey or maple. Reason being you don’t want the flavors of the recipe that you’re going to slather all over the outside of the ham competing with the flavor that’s already been injected into the ham. That could also get pretty darn sweet.

How big of a ham to buy?

Figure about 1/2 pound per person. Slightly more if it’s a bone-in ham. Slightly less if it’s a boneless ham. And, natch, allow for more if you’re the sort who anticipates ham leftovers from one holiday to the next.

How far in advance can I buy a ham?

Most hams come shrink-wrapped in packaging and so they’re safe to stash in your fridge, unopened, for at least several days. And keep in mind that the ham you find at your grocery store is most likely already cured or cooked through and simply requires warming. Originally published March 23, 2019.

HUNGRY FOR MORE?

Comments

  1. Renee, some of the recipes look good. But we just cook (reheat the ham). Because our son has some severe food allergies.

  2. Your article on which ham to buy really doesn’t help. You said any ham is a good ham. That really doesn’t help me too much.

    1. Timothy, our apologies and our gratitude for drawing our attention to your confusion. What we intended to do with this article wasn’t to name a particular brand that we find the best because, in our experience, different people care for different levels of saltiness and sweetness in their ham. Our intention was to demystify a lot of the common terms found on ham packaging so that you could make a more informed decision, and I’ve clarified the text at the top of the page to hopefully better articulate that. Thanks so much. And if you are seeking a particular brand, for what it’s worth, in past years I have always been quite pleased with the Trader Joe label hams.

      1. Renee thanks for clarifying what the article was for. And I do understand about people liking different things. Thank you, Tim Schell.

Have something to say?

Then tell us. Have a picture you'd like to add to your comment? Attach it below. And as always, please take a gander at our comment policy before posting.

Upload a picture of your dish