Ham isn’t just for holiday dinners anymore. A delicious, juicy cut can make its way into meals at any time of the year, with a wow factor that is plain undeniable.
But too much of the wrong type of ham can really take a toll on your health, pumping your body full of antibiotics and sodium.
However, by paying close attention to the meat that goes on your plate, you can give your family a delicious dinner that’s good for them, too. A 3.5 ounce serving of ham contains more than 19 grams of protein—that’s almost half of the daily recommended value of 46 to 56 grams.
Protein is vital because it acts as a building block for the body, making up hair, skin, nails, tendons, and muscles, as well as providing you with energy to get going throughout the day. Additionally, protein is satiating, so it’s possible to have a super filling meal with ham as the main course and keeping it simple with the sides. But, taking advantage of all of these health benefits starts with picking the right cut.
How to choose the right ham
A good cut of ham can taste pretty amazing all on its own, so if you really want to create a showstopping meal, the prep work starts in the deli department of your grocery store. The term ham refers to the part of the pig that it comes from—in this case, the hind leg. Most supermarket hams will be mildly flavored and will have been brined in a solution of water, salt, sugar, and spices, before being lightly smoked. Pricier hams may have been smoked for longer periods of time or using special woods like maple or cherry, which results in a more flavorful product.
There are four different kinds of ham that you can choose from:
Bone-in ham: This type of ham still has the bone inside (if you pick it up and examine, you’ll clearly see a circular white bone in the center of the cut). Because this type has been processed less—as opposed to spiral-sliced and canned varieties—you’ll get more of the tasty, natural flavor and less preservatives. Another benefit of choosing bone-in ham is that you get a say in how thick to cut the meat, whether that’s incredibly thin slices for deli-style sandwiches or thick chunks used to make soup. Although personal preference comes into play, most people find the taste and texture of bone-in ham to be among the best.
Spiral-sliced ham: Imagine taking a bone-in ham and swirling a knife around the core to produce thin slices of meat, from top to bottom. This is what a spiral-sliced ham provides: Once it comes out of the oven, all you have to do is cut along the bone, serve, and enjoy. Although super convenient, the downside to spiral-sliced hams is that they tend to have a glaze, which packs in extra sugar and sodium—if you choose this option, give the ham a good rinse to remove most traces of the glaze. Another thing to pay attention to is the fact that spiral-sliced ham can lose moisture during the cooking process and dry out, especially on the edges—so know that this type requires a little more care during the cooking process than an unsliced variety.
Boneless ham: This variety is exactly what it sounds like—a ham that has had the bone removed. Once the center bone is gone, the meat is pressed back together and cured for the final product. As such, this choice is a bit more processed, and the texture can be a bit more fibrous than traditional bone-in hams. The benefit, though, is that you’ll be able to purchase much smaller pieces of meat and spend less money, so it’s ideal for smaller serving sizes or for a tight budget.
Canned ham: Canned ham isn’t really entirely ham. It’s actually pork, made from a hodgepodge of different cuts that have been cured, pressed into a can together, and then steam-cooked. This type can stay fresher for longer since it’s mixed with other ingredients that act as preservatives. Canned ham also tends to be cheaper but is packed with sodium and can be significantly less flavorful than bone-in or spiral-sliced.
In addition to the four different cuts, there’s also a few ways that ham can come prepared:
- Fresh ham: This is an uncured leg of a hog, and the word “fresh” must be in its name to be verified. A fresh ham has not been cooked, cured, or smoked, so it requires more prep work. But, the advantage is that you know exactly what’s going into the finished product.
- Cured ham: Cured ham is brined or has a dry rub applied to it, which gives off a deep red color. Sometimes cured hams are sold ready-to-eat, and other times they require cooking, so be sure to double-check the label beforehand.
- Cured and smoked ham: This type starts as a cured ham and goes one step further to also smoke the meat to give it a fragrant, deep flavor.
When choosing your cut of ham, it really all boils down to a matter of preference for how involved you’d like to be in the cooking and preparation stages, as well as how processed you want the ham to be when purchasing it. In all cases, take note of the color and appearance before adding the meat to your grocery cart. A fresh ham should be bright grayish-pink and never pale or watery, while a cured ham should have a slightly brighter pink hue. On the contrary, a greenish or multi-colored appearance may suggest bacteria, so always avoid purchasing any meat with these colors.
Is organic ham better?
If there were ever a time to buy organic, it’s most definitely with ham. While organic ham won’t cut down on cholesterol and saturated fats (so it should still be consumed in moderation), it will reduce the rate of exposure to hormones and chemical toxins. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), animals raised on organic farms must be given organic feed and access to outdoor ranges to be certified organic. This cuts down on the rate of illness, and consequently, the use of antibiotics and hormones.
How to properly cook a ham
In the oven
Once you have purchased your meat and are ready to get cooking, the most foolproof option is to do so in the oven. There are just a few steps to follow to ensure the best meal every time.
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Though this seems like a low temp, you’ll want to cook the ham slowly to keep it from drying out.
- Add your favorite rub or seasonings to give your ham a unique flavor. Some suggestions include rosemary, olive oil, sea salt, lemon zest, thyme, and turmeric. Coat the entire ham before placing it in a roasting pan, and do so with the fatty side up.
- Cook the ham uncovered for a total time of 20 minutes per pound (for example, a 4-pound ham would cook for 80 minutes). Be sure to turn it over halfway through cooking, and avoid piercing the ham with a fork, which will help it retain the natural juices.
- Test the temperature. Your ham will be done when the internal temperature is between 160 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it’s done cooking, allow the ham to cool for ten minutes; this also lets the juices redistribute throughout the meat.
Curing and smoking
Curing and smoking a ham requires a lot of extra time (over two weeks!), but if you’ve planned ahead and have the time, it can be a wonderfully special dish. To cure ham, you’ll need a special combination of ingredients, starting with curing salt. You can’t use regular salt when curing ham—it must be specifically curing salt that is non-iodized. For every two cups of salt, add one tablespoon red pepper, one tablespoon black pepper, and one cup brown sugar; mix all together. Then, cut slits around each joint of the meat and pack your curing mixture into each, and finish with a good coating on top. Let the ham rest for 18 days in a refrigerator set to 36-40 degrees Fahrenheit.
You can also smoke the ham and give it even more rich, deep flavor, but you’ll need to secure a smoker and some firing wood. Set the temperature to 200-225 degrees Fahrenheit and smoke for about an hour and a half. Then, wrap the ham in foil, and smoke for another hour until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 140 degrees.
Dishes that can accompany ham
Once you’ve picked out the perfect ham for dinner, make sure to pair it with some healthy veggies and sides for a complete meal. Here are some of Thrive Market’s favorites.
No one will refuse to eat their green vegetables with a savory dish like this, combining a rich anchovy sauce with briny capers atop a bed of garlic-roasted broccolini. To prepare, you’ll also need some ghee, lemon, parsley, olive oil, red pepper flakes, and salt.
What’s a ham dinner without a side of warm mashed potatoes? Except this version won’t make you ready for a nap afterwards because it calls for red potatoes and olive oil to sub in for heavy cream, keeping things fresh and healthy. Add chives for extra garnish.
This side dish may take some of the charm away from the ham because the mixture of honey, cinnamon, and ginger is almost too good. Cumin also packs a punch into this root vegetable that is just begging for second helpings.
Switch things up with this healthy version of elotes, or Mexican street corn. It’s topped with an avocado oil-based mayo and crumbled feta cheese, while lime and cilantro provide a fresh, crisp taste that pairs well against the dark, rich flavors of ham.