A Guide To Shopping For Ham
There are a wide variety of hams available and choosing the right one can sometimes be a bit confusing.
We've put together a little guide to help you decode the labels and make the best choice possible for your dinner table.
The term "ham" actually refers to the hind leg of a hog and is available cured, smoked or fresh.
The majority of hams found in grocery stores are brined in a solution of water, salt, sugar and spices, then lightly smoked to add flavor and prolong shelf life.
More expensive "gourmet" hams are smoked for longer periods of time using special woods like juniper and maple and additional flavorings like juniper berries or sage.
Hams are available in several sizes: whole, half from the shank end, or half from the butt end. Whole hams range in size from 8 to 18 pounds, and the butt and shank halves average between 5 and 7 pounds.
The butt half comes from the upper portion of the leg, is more rounded and often available semi-boneless. The semi-boneless butt half has had the aitch (or pelvic) bone removed, but the femur remains intact. This allows for the extra flavor that the bone provides but makes for easier carving.
The shank half is shaped more like a funnel and retains its portion of the femur, plus a shank bone.
Portion & Boneless
If you see the word "portion" on the label of a half ham, this means that the center (aka meatiest) slices have been removed. Boneless hams have had a binder added, and the meat is then pressed back together in a uniform shape. Consequently, the texture and flavor of these hams is a bit different from the bone-in variety.
Spiral-sliced hams have been pre-sliced in a spiral pattern around the center bone. They are quite easy to carve, but extra care should be taken when heating to ensure that the meat doesn't dry out.
So given all that information, which ham should you choose? In our experience, a smoked semi-boneless butt half in its natural juices is the best choice. It has the center bone for extra flavor, it's nice and meaty without too much connective tissue, it's relatively easy to carve and the natural juices make for nice flavor and texture.