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Apr 8, 2009 03:14 PM

Ham — What I Don't Know Would Fill a Book

Easter is nigh upon us, and my wife (Maureen) and I decided that we would buy a ham, something we have not done before, So we logged on to Fresh Direct and I was both gratified and intimidated to see that when we searched for "Ham" FD showed us 52 responses, almost all of which do fit at least a loose definition of HAM.

Upon scrolling through and clicking on a picture of a good-looking ham, one of the questions FD would ask is "how thick do you want the slices?", implying that this is a kind of deli ham. Not at all what we wanted to buy...

There were hams that were smoked but not cured, cured but not smoked, cured and smoked, and water seemed to be the main ingredient in the ones we looked at closely. And although many of the pictures depicted a whole ham, many of those choices asked that vexing question about how thick we wanted the slices.

We wanted to buy a ham that we could slice ourselves and that was already cooked (whatever that means). Basically, we wanted a chunk of ham that we could (a) heat in the oven if we wanted; (b) slice cold without heating in the oven if we wanted, and (c) was already "cooked" enough to serve up either way. But FD does not provide that kind of info for the Ham illiterate (i.e., us).

We happened to watch Alton Brown recently talk about hams and he said there are Country Hams and City Hams and different classifications of each, based on preparation and content. But our experience on FD didn't provide any of those guidelines.

So, here I am again, begging the CH community to come to our aid. What kind of ham should we buy (choices ranged from cured Italian hams, like Prosciutto and Speck, to Serrano, to fresh (meaning, I think, raw) ham, to Heritage smoked but uncured hams, to deli hams that are sliced)?

Or maybe there is a good Ham website that we should peruse for our Ham foray...

Thanks in advance...

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  1. Well, I put in a dummy address for Park Slope to scope what's available to you.

    I think this is what you might be happiest with:

    THe price is steep (I can get good spiral sliced hams in my markets in the Boston area for 1.40-1.80 per pound this week). It is bone in, which is cheaper per pounded and for most tastes tastier and more delightful. There are two halves to a ham/leg - the upper, sirloin half (which looks rounded) and the lower, shank half (which is more pointed). Shank halves are easier to carve, and have more bone for making soup (do *not* waste a ham bone).

    Spiral-sliced hams are a convenient form of "city ham" (that is, wet-cured and smoked). Country hams are dry-cured and/or, in the US, smoked (typically with hickory, a distinctive American flavor, or fruitwoods). They include things like Smithfield ham and related hams from the Upper South; foreign hams would include jamon iberico (the ne plus ultra of hams), serrano, prosciutto (there are 3 Italian types, Parma being the best known in the US), et cet., which are not smoked by salt cured and air dried, and then more German style hams (some of which are smoked and some are not).

    City hams are moist and succulent. Country hams have a distinctively dry, somewhat silken texture and must be cut very thin and appreciated in bits. For ham newbies, the city ham is the more typical entry into the world of hams.

    Oh, and ignore the cooking instructions on Fresh Direct. I would never let a spiral-sliced ham get anywhere near 145F, which will render it dry and chewy. This is a better method (one inspired by the Cooks Illustrated approach; for hams that are not going to be glazed, CI simply has you remove it from the oven when it reaches 100F and kept on the counter in the closed roasting bag until it reaches 120F, which may take 30 minutes or so - that results in a very lovely, moist ham):

    1 Reply
    1. re: Karl S

      Wow! Thank you for the tutorial. And thank you for the link. We just totally missed that ham when we went searching through FD.

      I thought it would be relatively straightforward to go online and order a ham. Who knew?

      We very much appreciate you sharing your knowledge and your thoughts on hams in general. Exactly what we hoped for from the great CH community...

    2. For your "first time" you can get "Cooks" brand shank ham for any where from $.88 to about $1.29/lb this week. Stick a few cloves in it and roast covered at 325* until the meat pulls up from the bone about one inch on both sides. You can temp it if you want, I pull them at about 140*, let it rest about 20-30 minutes, they come out just fine.

      5 Replies
      1. re: mrbigshotno.1

        You are citing AZ prices, not NYC prices....

        Cooks is a good brand for SSHs. In Boston, they are priced 1.40 this week in one of our local chains, 1.80 in other chains. I expect NYC would be a higher.

        1. re: Karl S

          You guys obviously know your hams. We are the ignorant party here, so we have some questions:

          First, where does one purchase the "Cook" brand of ham?

          Second, what is SSHs?


          1. re: BrookBoy

            SSH is spiral-sliced ham.

            Cook's is available on the west coast in mid-level supermarkets. Make sure you get the one that is "with natural juices", and not with water added.

            1. re: BrookBoy

              There should be a stack of them on special at your local market this week -- butt and shank half portions -- these are the "normal" hams, various brands depending on where you live. Bring one home, bake, glaze and bake some more... and enjoy for days on end. Remember to save that bone for soup or beans -- bonus!

              1. re: Sarah

                re: "butt and shank half portions"
                Hams are sold as "butt half," "butt portion," "shank half," and "shank portion."
                A whole ham comprises both the butt and the shank - basically the entire pig's back leg.
                The halves are just that - the whole ham is cut in half.
                The portions are the halves - BUT the center slices have been cut off and are sold separately by the butcher at a higher price per pound than either the half or the portion.
                Generally, there is a higher meat to bone ratio in the butt half of the ham than in the shank half which is why the butt half is usually priced higher per pound.
                It is also easier to carve and you will get two small bones that can easily be separated with a knife. One will be the haitch bone.

                Hams are on sale everywhere this week. Whole hams are $.79 at Safeway - too good to pass up.
                If you have room in your freezer, buy a whole ham, bake it unglazed, eat as much as you wish, and then freeze the rest, plus the bones, for many pots of beans in the months to come.
                Don't forget to save/use the drippings from the pan for an incredible pot of black beans.
                You won't find ham cheaper until the Fall.

        2. City hams are usually not identified as
          such. What you probably want is a smoked,
          cured, cooked ham. Unless otherwise
          specified, you can assume it is a city ham.

          These require only
          warming in the oven. You can glaze or not,
          as you wish. Water will be a main
          ingredient because they are cured with a
          water bath or water injection.

          Country hams are sold primarily via mail
          irder. These require much different
          preparation than city hams, so make sure
          to check the directions.