There is nothing like the smell and taste of a freshly baked succulent ham. It is the ultimate entrée. The sweet, smoky flavor is almost intoxicating. When done properly, a roasted ham can be a memorable experience. Unfortunately, not everyone knows how to cook a ham. How many times have you been to a relative’s house, maybe for the holidays, and tried to keep a straight face, while you chew incessantly on a dry, salty chunk of what used to be meat? And sometimes, an improperly cooked ham will have a hard, thick crust that requires the use of a jackhammer and chainsaw to carve. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We just need to know a little about what we are dealing with
A ham deserves respect. It has a noble history. Swine were domesticated in China as far back as 4900 BC, and by 1500 BC, had spread word-wide. It was learned very early on that pork could be brined, and salted to increase its shelf life well beyond that of other meats. Salt pork and bacon were, and still are, staples in most kitchens.
Ham is the upper portion of the back leg of a hog. But, without the proper treatment, it is just a great pork roast. The traditional way to make ham is to brine the roast for as long as several weeks, cold smoke for a few weeks, to a few months, at a temperature no higher than 100 degrees F, and then hang it to age for a few more weeks, at the same temperature. Top-Quality hams are still made this way by companies like Smithfield. They are expensive, but you get what you pay for. A lot of producers inject nitrates, and water into the meat to simulate the smoking and aging process. These are called Ham Products. This only takes a few days, and these hams are much cheaper. They are good, but they will not have all the subtle nuances that a traditional ham has. And lastly, there is chopped ham, which is’ ham pieces mixed with ham fat and molded into a loaf. This is a great sandwich ham.
Ham is available in several different forms. You can buy a canned ham, which can be eaten right out of the package (and these are yummy’.espeailly DAK hams), and are great for sandwiches and salads. Or, you can buy spiced can ham, such as SPAM (SPAM is and acronym for SPiced hAM), Treet, and other names. These are also great right out the can for sandwiches, or they can be grilled and served with eggs for a wonderful breakfast treat. Canned hams as a rule, contain no msg, or extra preservatives, because they don’t need it. You can buy a fresh, uncooked ham (my favorite), a partially-cooked ham, or a country ham, cooked and already sliced (great for breakfast). Country Hams use a special brining process unique to the South. They are a bit saltier, and spicier.
If you are worried about salt, you can soak a fresh ham for an hour or so, but you will loose some flavor and color. The best way to control the salt is just not to eat as much (I know, it is hard to do, but try anyway). You can also cut the salt in other areas, like not using any table salt on your veggies, or potatoes. Use other spices instead, like No Salt or Mrs. Dash.
There are just a few more things you need to know to cook perfect ham, every time. It starts with thawing the ham, if it has been frozen. There are two methods. One is to set it in the refrigerator for a couple of days. This is the best way. The other is to that it in the sink. Wrap the ham tightly in a water-proof bag with no leaks, and place in a sink of cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes. This method can take anywhere from 4 hours, to most of the day. Never, never, never thaw a ham on the counter. In theory, you can thaw a ham in the microwave oven. Only do this if you don’t care if your ham is ruined. It will make it tough and tasteless’.a tragedy of epic proportions. I would probably cry.
Here are a few more tricks to make your ham the best it can be:
- There is no need to brine a ham. It has already been done. Likewise, smoking is not recommended. It has also already been done. The proper way to cook a ham is baking, or roasting (same procedure, mostly).
- The correct serving temperature for ham is 160 degrees. Don’t go by cooking time. Measure the internal temperature, and when it is 160 degrees, it is done, no matter how long it has been cooking.’
- Cooking time for a fresh ham is around 20 minutes per pound. A cooked ham just needs to be heated to 160 degrees, so it will cook at about 10, to 15 minutes per pound. These are just estimates. Don’t go by time. Use a meat thermometer and check the internal temperature. When it is within 5 degrees of 160, its ready. A ham is cooked at 325 to 350 degrees. No higher. Use 325 for an extra-large ham, and 350 for all others, even partially-cooked ham.
- Always allow your ham to rest for 15 to 20 minutes before serving. It allows the juices to settle back down, and the ham to stop cooking.
- Start your ham with the fat-side up. The fat will melt and baste the rest of the roast. Halfway through cooking, flip the fat-side down. This allows the brine to circulate evenly, and not pool in the bottom of the meat. If you do this, then ham doesn’t require any basting.
- Only add a glaze during the last 45 minutes of cooking. Otherwise, it will caramelize, get thick, hard and mostly enedible.
- Don’t throw away the juice, or fat. Use it to make the ultimate gravy
If you follow these guidelines, your ham will be the perfect every time, and you no longer need to fret because you didn’t know how to cook a ham.