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.
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.
But here’s the trick. Almost any ham that you buy will get the job done. Which is a pretty darn good place to start as you can’t go that wrong. But if you’re sorta picky about what you put on your table or if you’re simply curious about all those words on the package or you want something truly superlative, you’ll want to grasp a command of these terms that help you 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.
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.
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.
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.