Baked ham, considered a staple of special meals at holidays such as Christmas or Easter, is a simple but tasty dish that even the most novice cook can master in short order. How you bake a ham will vary depending on whether it is fresh or preserved and whether or not it has been pre-cooked, but regardless of which type of ham you use, the method will be very straightforward. You can also vary the flavor of your ham by playing around with different glazes, a number of which are described in this article.
Preparing the Ham
1Choose a type of ham. Most hams that you buy at the grocery store have already been cooked or partially cooked, which means that you’ll essentially be reheating the ham rather then cooking it from scratch. It is possible to buy raw ham (also known as fresh ham), but it is not common. Buying a precooked ham will save you a lot of cooking time, and many of them come pre-sliced and with a glaze provided.
- Pork is a particularly risky kind of meat to undercook – more likely dangerous than undercooked beef and bigger and harder to cook through than chicken. Pre-slicing any meat can get pathogens on the outside into the inside where they are harder to cook. And cooked, sealed meat is semi-sterilized to last longer. So don’t get a raw ham unless you are ready to prepare it carefully, including with a meat thermometer to ensure it is cooked through (recommendations vary from 140 to 160 degrees F). A cooked one need only be reheated to taste (and should not be overheated to avoid overcooking).
- You can buy hams with the bone-in or the bone removed. Bone-in hams are slightly more flavorful and make a dramatic dinner table centerpiece for any special occasions. They can be a little harder to cut than hams with the bone removed, however many brands spiral-cut their bone-in hams in advance, to overcome this problem. Spiral-cut hams are very easy to serve, but may become drier during cooking.
- In terms of weight, you can calculate the number of portions a ham will provide using the following quantities: For a bone-in ham, allow a minimum of 3/4 of a pound of weight per person; for a boneless ham, allow 1/4 pound of weight per person. This is because a bone-in ham provides less meat that a boneless one.
- The bone with little bits of meat on it can be reused to flavor and add bits of texture to a soup, but it has little substance and value compared to the same quantity of solid meat.
- A sliced ham that looks like a whole ham is normally “spiral sliced” in a helical pattern perpendicular to the bone, most of the way to the narrow end, so the meat comes off in large thin sheets parallel to the cut end. A little finishing and recovery of final bits with a knife is still needed. Spiral slicing is very convenient, more precise than most amateurs can do, makes a nice presentation, and allows access to the interior of the ham for extra flavoring. But it can let the outer part of the meat dry, so wrapping for much of the cooking process is especially important. And, in letting some moisture out to the surface, it can hinder browning the outside and caramelizing a glaze: finish off cooking with high heat and a dense glaze for the best outer appearance, texture and flavor. Finally, handle and lift gently, as a mass, to reduce premature falling off the bone.
- Always read the label accompanying the ham. This will help you to determine whether it is fresh or preserved and whether it has or has not been precooked. This information will help you to determine the proper cooking procedures for your ham.
2Store and thaw the ham. Ham must be stored properly to prevent the growth of bacteria on the ham. You can keep your ham in refrigerator at a temperature of 40 °F (4 °C) or lower. Boneless ham can be stored in the refrigerator at this temperature for up to a week, while bone-in hams (such as the rump or shank portions) will keep for up to two weeks. If you’re using raw ham, it will only last in the refrigerator for 3-5 days after the sell-by date.
- If you are buying your ham well in advance of the date you intend to cook it, your best option would be to freeze it, making sure it is well-wrapped or vacuum packed. Uncooked ham will keep for up to 6 months in the freezer, while cooked ham will keep for two, before the freezing begins to affect the flavor and quality of the meat.
- Once you decide to thaw your meat, be sure to do so in a safe, correct manner. Ham should never be thawed at room temperature, on your kitchen counter-top, as the outer layers of meat will defrost and become a breeding ground for bacteria, while the center remains frozen.
- To thaw frozen ham correctly, you can either place the ham on a dish in the refrigerator to thaw the ham slowly (4-7 hours depending on the size of the roast) or place the bag in a water-tight bag and submerge it in cold water for a faster defrost (approximately 30 minutes per pound of meat).
3Prepare the ham.
- Remove and discard any packaging from the ham. If the ham is precooked in a factory-sealed pouch, retain the flavorful liquid for basting and/or dressing: cut open the big side of the package facing up, lift out the ham, and pour out the liquid into a container. Set it aside in a refrigerator. Because it has sat in meat for days, best to heat it to cooking temperatures before consuming.
- Optionally, score a non-presliced ham. (Cross-scoring will chip apart a presliced one.) then place it – fatty side up – on a chopping board. Score the ham with a sharp knife, making a diamond pattern. The slices should be about 1/4 to 1/2 an inch deep, with each parallel line about 1 1⁄2 inches (3.8 cm) apart.
- You should not cut into the meat itself when scoring, just into the layers of skin and fat. This will allow the flavors from the glazing to seep into the meat, while also producing a decorative effect.
- Traditionally, a clove is inserted into the center of each diamond for flavor and decoration. Just make sure to remove the cloves before eating because they are hard and strongly flavored. If you find the clove flavor too strong, you can use bits of dried fig instead (these will caramelize deliciously onto the ham during baking). You can also dust on ground spices. With clove, a little goes a long way!
- Some people prefer to trim away the extra layers of fat and skin before cooking the ham, but this is not necessary and roasted fat can add mouth-feel, flavor and appearance and reduce drying of the meat within. So better to leave the normal thin covering of fat.
- Optionally, flavor the interior of the ham. Ham is tasty as-is, generally is cured with some salt, and may have been smoked. But sweet and spicy flavors throughout rather than just on the edge and seeping into the surface can add a lot. Spiral slicing adds an easy to way to get them in! Or, try a marinade injector syringe, but ham’s dense texture reduces diffusion and shows punctures.
- One tasty recipe is as follows: mix one cup honey, half a teaspoon cinnamon, and a quarter teaspoon of cloves in a mug or glass cup; microwave to a bubble (very hot and sticky; don’t burn yourself) to extract and mix their flavors; and smear lightly between the spiral slices, rotating to get all sides (a silicone baking brush works well and is easy to clean thoroughly). A truly “honey baked” ham! Dessert baking spices tend to work well (check warehouse, discount and ethnic stores and sections for fair prices), as might extremely sour juices, preferably concentrated.
- Do not put pineapple products that have not been cooked thoroughly to destroy their enzymes inside the ham. They will tenderize it into mush.
4Place the ham in a roasting pan. Line the pan with aluminum foil first, as this will make the clean-up easier, as well as helping to catch any juice from the meat. Place the ham fat side up and leave uncovered. The fat from the top of the meat will melt and run down the sides of the ham, helping to baste it in the process.
- Some chefs recommend adding half a cup of white wine to the base of the pan before baking, to prevent the ham from sticking. You can also use water or juice if you don’t want to use wine.
- Alternatively, wrap the ham in aluminum foil to keep it moist and let retained vapor’s heating condensation speed through most of the warming (or cooking) process. Set it cut end down in the middle of a long sheet of aluminum foil in a pan. Bend up the edges to form a trough, then join the ends over the top and bring the sides together. Put another piece over the top and sides first to cover the entire thing if needed. Wrap it around the in-oven or remote-reading meat thermometer (or punch that through) if you’re using one.
Making the Glaze
Check to see if your ham came with a packet of glaze. If it did, then prepare the glaze following the directions on the package if you like. Set aside for later.
2Make a homemade glaze. There are an endless amount of homemade glaze recipes out there – which one you choose depends on your personal preferences – whether you like your ham sweet and succulent or herby and slightly spiced! Some simple, yet delicious suggestions are outlined below. The key ingredient is sugar, which can caramelize to a crunch. Heat, such as a microwave’s, will help mix it up with less water (careful!). A little corn syrup or honey can prevent excess crystallization; too much can make it gooey. To keep the glaze from running off under heat before it binds to the surface, add a teaspoon or so per cup of corn syrup, mixing it in cold, and finishing dissolution to a clear gel warm.
- Make a mustard and brown sugar glaze: Mix equal amounts of honey mustard and brown sugar. 1/4 cup of each is a good measurement to go by, though this will vary depending on the size of the ham.
- Make an orange and pear juice glaze: Mix 3/4 cup each of pear juice and apple juice for a sweet, fruity glaze.
- Make a brown sugar and maple syrup or honey glaze: Mix equal amounts of brown sugar and honey or maple syrup. Use about a 3/4 cup of each, depending on the size of the ham.
- Make a raspberry preserve glaze: Mix a cup of raspberry preserve with 1/2 a cup of light corn syrup, stirring until well combined. You could also substitute the raspberry for another flavor preserve, depending on your tastes – apricot, cherry and orange marmalade are all good options.
- Make a honey thyme glaze: In a saucepan over a medium heat, combine 3 tablespoons of butter, 2 tablespoons of freshly chopped thyme, 1/4 cup of cider vinegar, 1/4 cup of honey, a tablespoon of brown sugar and a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce. Stir constantly until the butter has melted and the sugar has dissolved, then remove from the heat.
3Glaze the ham. Regardless of which glaze you choose to use, separate a third of it and set the rest aside for now. Use a pastry brush to apply the glaze to the top of the ham, making sure to work the glaze in between the scored lines.
- You will keep the ham moist during cooking by continually brushing the meat with the reserved glaze at 20 minute intervals. In this way, all of the glaze should be used up by the end of the cooking time.
- Be wary with sugar-based glazes as the sugar may start to burn on the surface of the ham before the ham is fully cooked. Keep a close eye on the color – if it starts to turn dark brown or black, make a “tent” from aluminum foil to cover the ham while it finishes cooking.
- Alternatively, just heat the ham wrapped up and brown and glaze it at the end. Flavoring the ham between spiral slices will do best for the inside, and this method requires little maintenance.
Baking the Ham
1Preheat the oven. Set the temperature to 350ºF (180ºC) if using a conventional electric or gas oven. Set to 325ºF (170ºC) if using a convection oven.
- A lower temperature such as 275 degrees will reduce drying for similar interior warming time (the outside can’t heat past boiling to conduct heat in faster, but will just let out more steam at higher heat) but is not conducive to browning and glazing.
2Place the ham in the preheated oven for baking. The amount of cooking time will depend on the size off the ham and whether it has been pre-cooked or not. Follow the guidelines below for cooking times:
- Bake a partially- or fully-cooked preserved ham for 10 minutes per pound (0.5 kg) to reheat the ham completely through.
- Bake a preserved ham that has not been precooked at all for 20 minutes per pound (0.5 kg).
- Bake a fresh bone-in ham for 20 to 25 minutes per pound or a fresh boneless ham for 30 to 35 minutes per pound (0.5 kg).
3Baste the ham every 20 minutes. To add moisture and flavor to the ham, open the open door and baste the meat with additional glaze, along with any juices that have escaped.
- A closely wrapped ham will not need basting and should not be opened prematurely.
4Test the internal temperature of the ham. You can do this by inserting a meat thermometer into the ham which stays there during cooking, or by using an instant read thermometer once the ham is cooked. When the thermometer reads 160ºF Fahrenheit (71ºC), the ham is done.
- When using a thermometer to test the temperature of a bone-in ham, make sure that the thermometer is not touching the bone, as this will affect the reading and give an inaccurate result.
- Note that if a ham has been fully pre-cooked, it is okay to remove the meat from the oven once it reaches a lower temperature of between 110º to 120º F, as you are simply reheating it for eating.
Brown and glaze the ham now if it has been heated tightly wrapped. Take the ham in its pan out of the oven, or work quickly. Open up the aluminum foil on top. Increase the oven temperature to 450 °F (232 °C). Once the outside is not wet looking, which should only take a few minutes, brush or spoon the ham with a dense, sugary glaze. Watch through the oven door or open and check periodically for some caramelization. A little underdone is much better than a burnt surface.
Baste the meat in its juices, cover and leave to rest. Let the ham rest, covered in aluminum foil, for at least 15 minutes before carving. This will allow the ham to finish cooking, while also letting the meat settle, making it easier to carve. (Do not pour pan drippings over the outside of a sugar glazed ham. They won’t get in and will tend to wash off the glaze.)
Prepare sauce. The pan drippings can be tasty on ham, but a denser sauce can be even better. Pork is very light for a heavy, greasy, floury sauce. Try combining the pan drippings, the liquid that came with a sealed precooked ham (if applicable), a half-teaspoon of cinnamon, a quarter-teaspoon of clove, a small can of pineapple juice, and a teaspoon of corn starch, stirred and heated to clarify the starch. This makes a lighter meaty-fruity sauce that won’t run off entirely.
8Carve the ham. Once the ham has finished resting, you can carve the ham, typically perpendicular to the bone, using a long sharp knife. If it’s a bone-in ham, you should first cut around the bone to loosen the meat, then slice it thinly.
- Do this off a fancy platter at the table for best presentation. The ham should be sideways or cut-side up on a heavy wire stand sold for this purpose.
- Thin slices are best, to expose more tasty surface area and not emphasize ham’s unusually dense texture.
- A spiral sliced ham is so easy to cut even a child with a table knife can do it!
- Alternatively, you can rest the meat on its side and cut a slice off the wide end to make a flat surface. Turn the ham so that it’s sitting on this flat end and then cut long, thin slices down the length of the ham.
- Make sure to save the bone, which you can use to add great flavor to soups. If you won’t use it immediately, wrap it in plastic to reduce desiccation.
9Serve the ham. Place the ham on a serving plate and bring to the table for your guests to admire. Make sure to keep the leftovers for use in sandwiches, quiches, casseroles or whatever you like!
- Leftover ham slices are tasty and different grilled, like thick-cut, low-fat bacon. Takes just a minute with a skillet before adding to cool lettuce, tomato, mustard, mayonnaise or other sandwich fixings or breakfast! Caramelization of a little sweet mixture added between spiral slices can make this even more delicious. Also a great way for initial serving to those who fundamentally dislike basic ham.
Do I remove the mesh from the ham before baking it or after?
Typically you remove the “mesh” after baking. Don’t panic if you removed it prior to baking, you won’t ruin much.
How long should I cook a ham if I don’t know its approximate weight?
If the ham is uncooked, then cook it on a low temperature (325 degrees F) until it reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. If the ham is fully cooked, then heat it on a low temperature (325 degrees F) until it reaches an internal temperature of 140 degrees F. Use a meat thermometer placed in the center of the cut to measure internal temperature.
What if the ham is not done after I have cut meat off?
Put it back in the oven for a few minutes until the meat is properly cooked. Stick it every so often to feel the texture of the meat.
What do I do if I have already cooked the ham and it doesn’t taste good?
Slice the ham and slowly warm it in a fry pan with honey and brown sugar. To avoid overcooking, you can steam it. If you think the ham was spoiled, and it smelled and tasted bad, throw it out.
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- Leftover ham reheats well and can be used in many “second generation” dishes to breathe new life into a tired dinner lineup.
- Make sure you don’t throw away the glaze packet if one came with your ham. To save on time, this is the quick way of making the glaze.
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