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I could use some help ordering a ham for Christmas...

I've searched and read the HC board regarding hams, and realize that I'm just not sure what kind of ham I am looking for. We've served ham at gatherings before, but always end up disappointed- either in taste, texture or appearance. I would really appreciate your answers to some specific questions. We want to do a relaxed American Christmas Day meal for about 10 people after our thoroughly hectic Italian Christmas Eve fish meal for 25 on the eve. So we have settled on serving a glazed baked ham as the main dish. We are looking for a ham that is tender, meaty and high quality. We'd like to use a sweet homemade glaze, and possibly a complimentary sweet sauce on the side, as well (would love to see recipe suggestions!). I have been on sites like Smithfield, Nueske, Edwards and others, and keep coming back to the same questions:

What is the difference between a Country Ham, a Smoked Ham, a "genuine" Virginia Ham, etc. etc.? Also, what is the benefit/flavor difference of an aged ham? I am pretty sure I want a bone-in version, and I don't mind having to cook the ham rather than simply heat it. In fact, we are hoping to do the old-fashioned criss-crossing of the skin... maybe even pineapple rings, too.
Finally, I would love to know if anyone has any advice re: slicing the ham... how thin/thick for the best flavor? Which direction? At the risk of sounding as though Ive never eaten ham before (I have), I ask these questions in the hopes of getting it right this time. Thanks so much.

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  1. The standard-issue smoked ham is not really smoked at all, just given some smoke flavor as part of the wet-curing process. This is what most people are used to eating nowadays, whether it's a regular supermarket brand or from Honey-Baked et al. Country hams (including those from Virginia) are dry-cured - salted until the flesh is well firmed up, then smoked over whatever fuel is locally preferred (hickory, maple, corncobs, whatever) and then hung to age. The flavors are much stronger and the ham is pretty salty - I personally find it too salty when simply sliced and fried, though I do like it sliced thin and eaten raw, like prosciutto. To cook these the usual process is to scrub the ham well to get rid of any mold (which is surface-only and harmless). The ham is then boiled - this requires a big enough kettle and lots of water, which is what's kept me from doing one - and any mail-ordered ham will come with sufficient instructions for doing this. After the boiling and cooling, you cut off the tough skin and then do the criss-cross thing with or without the employment of pineapple, cherries etcetera and bake it.

    My experience has been limited to the hams of Tennessee and Kentucky. My favorite mail-order purveyor of cured pig items is Broadbent, in Kentucky, whose hams routinely hog (sorry) the prizes at the KY State Fair. I've just had slices, but their whole-ham prices beat both Early's and Loveless, both good suppliers in the Nashville area. Harper's is the biggest supplier of mass-produced Tennessee country hams, and their slices have been good, too.

    1. The kind of ham most of us think of when we say "glazed baked ham" would be a smoked ham which Will Owen has described very well. It is already fully cooked so only needs warming through. A so-called "fresh ham" is actually unsmoked, uncured, uncooked (eg, raw) pork, that requires thorough roasting and is delicious but not hammy at all, just porky. I think you want a smoked ham. The best I have ever had came from Nueske, their old-fashioned bone-in ham, and it was WONDERFUL. I believe that the key to heating without drying it out is low and slow but I also think they sent detailed instructions. My preference is for thin slices but it is a matter of taste. Here are some ham-carving tips:

      http://www.recipetips.com/kitchen-tip...
      http://simplycook.wordpress.com/2008/...

      1. I think of a "country" ham (as explained brilliantly by Will Owen) as more of a condiment than a main dish. It's very strong flavored, dry, and salty and is often sliced paper thin and served with biscuits (use it like proscuitto). You certainly wouldn't want to carve off a big slab and serve it to a guest.

        3 Replies
        1. re: chococat

          Au contraire, chococat - a properly simmered-then-baked country ham can be quite succulent, though never as hammily bland (or blandly hammy?) as, say, yer Honey-Baked or Armour Star or whatever. However, it is true that its best use for most of us is as either a stout breakfast meat or as a condiment, snack or component (mess of beans, scalloped potatoes with ham, ham & chicken pie...). Nevertheless, I do want to get one some day and see if I can match the best cooked one I ever tried, a home-butchered, home-cured and home-cooked masterpiece from a country music legend who lived up the road. What a piece of meat that was!

          1. re: Will Owen

            We had a gorgeous country ham this Christmas. I am not sure where my brother ordered it from, somewhere in Tennessee I believe, but it was fabulous. We soaked it in several changes of water for 36 hours, then simmered it in Coke and some onions for three hours and then finally cut off the majority of the fat, scored it, studded it with cloves and then glazed it with mustard, brown sugar and a little vinegar, and baked it. It was to die for!

            The next day we made Hoppin' John with the bone.

        2. I really like the Kurobuta/Berkshire hams from Snake River Farms. First time I had one, I totally changed the way I looked at hams. Very flavorful and meaty. I preferred the bone-in.

          http://www.snakeriverfarms.com/SnakeR...

          1. Thank you so much for all of your replies, especially WO, for the very helpful explanation of different types of hams and preparation methods. I think I probably am looking for a 'smoked' ham, bone-in, from a reputable producer. Any more thoughts regarding glazes/sauces? So far, I plan to look up Nueske, Broadbent and Snake River Farms... any other suggestions? Thanks again.
            Edit- I'd also really appreciate any tips on size- will a 1/2 ham (7-9 lbs, bone-in) suffice for 10 people, keping mind that there will be a soup course and side dishes?

            3 Replies
            1. re: vvvindaloo

              This is a good quality ham produced in my geographical area.

              http://schadmeats.com/products/hickor...

              I will be serving this, 8-9 pounds, half ham (bone in) for Christmas. I have always had a good ham from this manufacturer, purchased via a local butcher shop.

              I would say that, for 10 people, you should be OK with a half ham.

              1. re: vvvindaloo

                Just as an additional aside, Broadbent has "city" hams, too. I haven't compared prices for those, but I'd expect theirs to be better than competitive.

                1. re: Will Owen

                  Thanks for all of your help, Will. It served me well!