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Ham Basics - Preparing And Cooking A Ham

Making a ham for the holidays is a great idea because of its flexibility with leftovers. If you have a choice between turkey and ham, ham is almost always the easier cooking option because there are fewer risks in food poisoning.

Trichinella spiralis is a parasite that is found on pork, which can cause a food borne disease call trichinosis. Most hams sold on the US market are prepared according to USDA standards which virtually eliminate this parasite, but if you buy a fresh ham direct from a farmer or a small market country ham, you have a slight risk if it was not prepared properly.

Trichinosis is killed when the meat reaches a temperature of 137 degrees Fahrenheit. To be on the safe side, cook the ham until the center reads 160 degrees on the internal thermometer setting.

You do not have to over cook the ham, just make sure it hits the right temperature during cooking.

Some hams may have mould on it which sometimes occur during the curing process. This is not harmful and can easily be washed off before you cook it.

Even though the curing process can eliminate the risk of trichinosis, you also have cross-contamination risks around other foods and mishandling it can lead to Staphylococcus aureus contaminating the food which cannot be cooked out under any circumstance. Always be sure to handle your meat carefully. Wash your hands before and after touching it. Never store it where meat can drip on other food items and keep meat covered. Cook your meat properly until the center is high enough to kill harmful elements. Promptly refrigerate all cooked meat. If you follow these guidelines, you should have no problems.

Whole Ham - Includes both the butt and shank cuts of the leg. The whole ham can weigh 10 to 20 pounds.

Butt End - The upper cut of the hog's hind leg. The butt end is meatier but contains more fat than the shank end of the whole ham and is harder to carve because it contains the hip and pelvic bone.

Shank End - Lower cut of the hog's hind leg. The shank end contains less fat, is not as meaty as the butt end, but it contains only one leg bone, making it easier to carve.

Center Ham Slice - Also referred to as center cut ham steak, this cut is approximately ½ to 1 inch thick and is sliced from the center of the ham where the butt end and shank end are separated. It is available cured and smoked.

Fresh Ham - Fresh hams are cuts from the hind leg that are not cured or smoked. They are grayish-pink in color when raw and when cooked they are grayish-white.

Dry Cured or Country Ham - uncooked, cured, dried, smoked-or-unsmoked meat products made from a single piece of meat from the hind leg of a hog or from a single piece of meat from a pork shoulder. Smithfield and country hams are not fully cooked but are dry cured to be safe stored at room temperature. They should be cooked before eating according to manufacturer's instructions. A ham labeled "Smithfield Ham" must be processed in the city of Smithfield, Virginia.

Brine, Wet or City Ham - They are cuts from the hind leg of a hog that have been cured by soaking or injecting with water and brining ingredients. The curing solution consists of water and brining ingredients, such as salt, sugar, sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate, honey, spices, seasoning, and artificial flavoring. The ham may also be cooked or smoked during this process.

Hickory Smoked Ham - A cured ham which has been smoked by hanging over burning hickory wood chips in a smokehouse. May not be labeled "hickory smoked" unless hickory wood has been used.

Sugar Cured - A term that may appear on ham labels if cane or beet sugar is at least half the sweetening ingredients used and if the sugar is used in an amount sufficient to flavor and/or affect the appearance of the finished product. Most hams contain sugar in the curing mixture.

The amount of water in the ham will affect how it tastes, its texture, and how it will cook. If you check the water content, it will usually be labeled with the following guidelines:

Also read the label to see if the ham is fully cooked, partially cooked or uncooked.

If you have selected a cooked or a baked ham, further preparation is unnecessary as it is ready to serve, but if you prefer a warm piece of meat, heat it for a short time according to cooking guidelines.

Baking a ham is a pretty simple process. Place it, fat side up, on a rack in a baking pan. Cut thin shallow scores (about 1/4 inch deep) over the fat surface in a diamond pattern. If you have a thermometer you will want to insert it at this point.

Bake the ham in a 325 degree oven. For a fully cooked ham, you will want the thermometer to pop at 140 degrees, for a ham that is not fully pre-cooked, the internal temp should get to 160 degrees. If you do not have a thermometer, not to worry. Use the following chart as a guide:

Ham Type Weight Approx Cooking Time
Fully Cooked 1 1/2 - 3 lbs 1 - 1/2 hours
Fully Cooked 3 - 7 lbs 1 1/2 - 2 hours
Fully Cooked 7 - 10 lbs 2 - 2 1/2 hours
Fully Cooked 10+ lbs 2 1/2+ hours
Not Fully Cooked 1 1/2 - 3 lbs 1 1/2 - 2 hours
Not Fully Cooked 3 - 4 lbs 2 - 2 1/2 hours
Not Fully Cooked 4 - 7 lbs 2 1/2 - 3 1/2 hours
Not Fully Cooked 7 - 10 lbs 3 1/2 - 4 hours
Not Fully Cooked 10+ lbs 4+ hours

If you want to glaze the ham, get a small pan over medium heat. Spoon off about 3 tablespoons of fat from the cooking ham and put in the pan with 6 tablespoons of brown sugar and 1/2 cup pineapple juice. Let the sugar completely dissolve and bring to a boil until the mixture slightly thickens. Remove from heat and let stand until ready. 30 minutes before the ham is done, spoon over the meat.

When you have a cooked ham, do not just start carving the meat. The juices will run creating a dry ham. Let it stand for at least 15 minutes under a tent made from aluminum foil so the juices will settle in place.

Ham from the can without the bone (if you can call it ham) is easy to serve. Just open the can, heating is optional and slice like you would a loaf of bread. No challenge there.

There are three easy steps to elegantly carving a ham with a bone:

The flavor of your ham is best when served at room temperature. Sliced ham is delicious on biscuits or pan-fried. You can use leftover pieces of ham or a piece of bone in soup, beans or vegetables.