How to Cook a Ham to Perfection Every Time

Everything you need to know to make your ham dreams come true.

How to cook ham

Elena Shashkina / Alamy Stock Photo

Of all the classic American holiday meats — roasted turkey, leg of lamb, prime rib — ham has to be one of the easiest. The quintessential holiday ham is what’s known as a city ham, which is pork that has been cured and/or smoked and is usually sold fully cooked. That means all that’s left for the cook to do is add a glaze, heat up the ham, and dig in. But before you preheat the oven, let’s start at the store.

How to Shop for Ham

When you’re at the grocery store faced with all of the porky options, things can feel a little overwhelming. But if you follow these tips, you’ll be good to go.

You only want to see “ham” on the label. The simpler the wording on the package, the better off you’ll be. Some hams are labeled “ham, water added” or “ham with natural juices,” which means just what it says. The more water or juices that are added to a ham, the less it will taste like, well, ham.

Look for humanely raised pork. “The number one thing is to look for something humanely raised. That's a good way to shop in general, but it also speaks to the quality of the ham,” says Ashley Christensen, chef and proprietor of AC Restaurants in Raleigh, North Carolina

Opt for bone-in ham. You’ll often have a choice between bone-in and boneless ham. Boneless is easier to carve, but bone-in will have a deeper, richer flavor and a better texture.

Say yes to spiral sliced. Will you have more control over the thickness of the slices with an uncut ham? Yes. Is the stress of carving it at dinner worth it? Probably not. Even chefs agree. “Just buy a spiral ham and cut it along the bone. Holidays are so stressful. Make your life easier,” says Kat Petonito, executive chef at The Duck & The Peach in Washington, D.C. 

If you have a choice, buy the shank. When you’re shopping, you may see hams labeled “shank” and “butt” or “sirloin.” The shank cut is fattier and is easier to carve. The butt/sirloin is leaner and has the aitchbone, which is difficult to carve around.  

How much ham should I buy?
If you’re buying a bone-in ham, you should plan for about 3/4 pound per person. If you go the boneless route, buy about 1/2 pound per person. These guidelines should give you plenty of meat for your guests and also leave you with leftovers.

How to Cook a Ham

Choose your glaze
Now that you’ve got your ham, it’s time to have some fun. Many city hams come with a packet of glaze, but we suggest skipping that and making your own instead. We have recipes for a sweet glazed hams like Honey-Bourbon-Glazed Ham, Apple Cider Glazed Ham, and DIY Honey-Baked Ham. Or try a tart-spicy Pomegranate-Jalapeño-Glazed Ham or a more savory Guinness-Glazed Ham.

Petonito’s family definitely got the fun memo when it comes to ham. Her uncle is known for his toffee-glazed ham, which is slathered with a mixture of butter and brown sugar and baked covered at 350°F until the ham is heated through and the glaze is set. “It's crunchy on the skin and juicy on the inside,” she says. “It’s just the perfect balance of sweet and salty.” The recipe is a family classic — and for good reason.

But toffee isn’t the only glaze game in town, of course. You can whip up a sweet-savory mixture of honey, mustard, brown sugar, and cayenne for a little heat. Or you can mix Dijon, honey, and apple cider. Or heat up some jarred pepper jelly and mix it with a little water to thin it out. What you’re looking for is a glaze that’s sweet with a little bite to balance out the salty, porky meat. 

Get cooking
Once you’ve chosen your glaze, pour some liquid (water, stock, apple cider) into your roasting pan, and add your ham cut-side down. If you have a spiral-cut ham, you don’t need to score your ham but if the meat isn’t sliced, use a sharp knife to cut a cross-hatch pattern in the ham. The scoring will help the flavor of the glaze seep into the ham and will also give the meat a fun, finished look.

Cover the ham with foil and cook it at 350°F until it registers 140°F on an instant-read thermometer. That should take between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 hours, depending on the size of your ham. Some recipes call for frequent glazing throughout the cooking process, while others instruct you to start brushing on the glaze during the latter part of cooking. Removing the foil during the last 15 to 30 minutes of cooking will help concentrate the flavor of your glaze and give it a shiny look. 

Let it rest
When your ham is done, pull it out of the oven and let it rest for about 15 minutes to help the meat stay juicy and tender when you’re ready to carve.

Carving time
You’re almost done! If you bought a spiral-cut ham this part should be pretty easy, but chef Christensen has some advice. “Be mindful of the bone. Use a long, sharp knife and cut straight down. Be comfortable and confident with not having perfect slices — it's worth the trade-off for the added flavor you get from the bone.” Transfer the ham to a platter and dig in!

The best ways to use leftover ham
One of the best things about ham is that you almost always have plenty of leftovers. Sandwiches are a given, but that delicious meat can be used in lots of creative ways. Petonito likes to use the ham for a tortellini filling and turns the ham bone into ham bone brodo. She serves the ham-stuffed pasta in the ham-infused broth for a uniquely American take on a classic Italian dish. 

Christensen has breakfast in mind for her leftovers. “I’m a sucker for a Western omelet,” she says. “I use the leftover ham, with  peppers, onions, and cheese.” And she adds the ham bone to whatever she’s stewing, including beans, peas, and greens.

RELATED: Our 13 Best Leftover Ham Recipes

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