How to Cook Ham
Everything you need to know plus step-by-step instructions to cook the perfect ham.
Ham is a classic Easter and holiday-time dish, but that doesn’t mean you should forget about it the rest of the year. In fact, despite its stuffy associations, ham, which comes from the delicious upper part of the pic’s leg, is a terrific weeknight dinner ingredient. With minimal prep and just a few key seasonings you’ll find yourself with a delicious, tender and nutrient-rich cut of meat that’s decidedly homey and surprisingly versatile. Depending on the kind and amount you buy, ham is perfect for everything from a super-quick and comforting weeknight dinner when your family’s sick of chicken and steak, to a ridiculously tasty and cost-efficient meal-prep protein when cooked in bulk. What’s more, ham’s salty, deeply savory and meaty flavor pairs well with an array of seasonings and ingredients, making it the perfect protein when you’re low on groceries. The meat’s rich flavor and high protein content require just a simple side salad or roasted vegetable side to yield a complete and deeply satisfying meal.
And if the idea of cooking ham conjures nightmares of past holidays spent wrestling unwieldy whole hogs into your oven or hours of glazing in the pursuit of a perfect honey crust, don’t you worry. Turning ham from a holiday specialty into a casual weeknight ingredient starts with undoing most of the techniques and methods associated with its cooking. That means smaller cuts of meat, less pre-preparation, and an emphasis on heightening the ham’s natural flavors through the cooking process instead of tedious marinating and basting beforehand. If you give it a chance, we think you’ll be surprised to find just how simple, delicious and versatile a meat ham really is.
Table of contents
What to Look for When Shopping for a Ham
- Partial vs. Pre-Cooked
- Country Ham vs. City Ham
- Boneless vs. Bone-In
- Rump vs. Shank
- Unsliced vs. Spiral Cut
Preparing Your Ham
How to Oven-Bake a Ham
- How to Oven-Bake a Pre-Cooked Ham
- How to Oven-Bake a Partially-Cooked Ham
What to Look for When Shopping for a Ham
Partial vs. Pre-Cooked
Unlike chicken, steak or really any popular protein, ham is generally sold partially or even fully cooked, having undergone at least some smoking process prior to hitting the store shelves. There are two main kinds of cooking preparations: pre-cooked and fully-cooked, which will be clearly labeled on your ham.
Partially-Cooked Partially-cooked ham has been heated to an internal temperature high enough to kill any parasites or bacteria but has not finished cooking. As a result you’ll need a little extra time to cook it through and should make sure it hits an internal temperature of 160° F before serving. Partially-cooked ham tend to have less added flavor, and are best if your recipe calls for robust seasonings or flavor profiles.
Pre-Cooked Pre-cooked hams have been fully cooked, and just need to hit an internal temperature of 140° F to be served. These are the most common types of ham you’ll find in the store, and will have a more developed flavor from the longer smoking time, meaning they’re quick to heat up and heat.
Country Ham vs. City Ham
All ham goes through some amount of curing, which at its most basic form involves covering the meat in a salt-based to help preserve the meat’s flavor and texture and extend its longevity. Almost all ham cured one of two ways: wet-cured (also called city ham), or dry-cured (also called country ham). The difference between these curing methods is vast, yielding two very different products both in terms of flavor and preparation.
Wet-Cured (City Ham) City hams have been cured in a liquid mixture of salt and water, and other seasonings such as honey and spices. City hams are almost always fully-cooked, and tend to have a milder pork flavor than country hams.
Dry-Cured (Country Ham) Country hams utilize an entirely dry cure and a longer curing process than city varieties, producing a rich, pork-forward flavor and more depth and richness of flavor than wet-cured cuts. Country hams come partially-cooked.
Boneless vs. Bone-In
Most cuts of ham will be available boneless or bone-in. While boneless ham has the advantage of being easier to cut, as ham bones can sometimes have complicated placement that’s difficult to carve around, it’s best to always buy bone-in when you can. Bone-in ham tends to have a richer texture and more intense pork flavor than boneless varieties, which can quickly lose flavor once deboned.
If you’re used to buying massive whole hams to feed a family crowd, you might be pleasantly surprised to realize there’s a much more manageable option: the half ham. For most families, the half ham will be the way to go for meal-prepping and weeknight dinners. When calculating how much you should buy, plan for ½ pound of meat per person.
Whole Ham Whole hams generally range from 10-18 pounds, meaning they’ll yield anywhere from 20-36 servings at once. Their size can also make whole hams temperamental and lengthy to cook, usually around 5 hours for a moderately-sized partially-cooked variety. Save these for special occasions when you’re feeding a crowd, and make sure to call your supermarket ahead of time. Most stores don’t keep whole hams in stock and require a special order.
Half Ham A half ham usually weigh in around 5-10 pounds. They’re a great size for meal-prepping, in smaller sizes for a week’s worth of meals for one person or closer to 9-10 pounds for a family.
Rump vs. Shank
Ham can be purchased in two cuts: the rump or the shank. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Rump The rump or butt cut comes from the upper part of the leg, and yields a delightfully tender and flavorful meat that’s usually relatively easy to carve.
Shank A shank cut comes from the more muscular lower part of the leg, and is traditionally butchered to retain parts of its femur and shank bone. These bones imbue the meat with flavor, making the shank cut probably the most flavorful part of the ham. That said, its dense connective tissues give the shank a chewier texture, and the bones can be difficult to cut around.
Unsliced vs. Spiral Cut
Ham comes either pre-sliced, with pieces cut and separated down to the bone in a spiral pattern, or unsliced. Spiral cut ham is great if you’re in a time pinch, as the pieces are pre-portioned and ready to serve as soon as the ham’s been cooked, with no butchering on your part. That said, pre-slicing tends to make spiral cut ham a bit more dried out and can mellow out the flavor. If you have the time and patience to cut your own meat, definitely opt for unsliced.
Preparing Your Ham
If you’re cooking an unsliced ham, you’ll want to score the skin in its classic diamond-shaped pattern before cooking. This will allow the flavor of your glaze or marinade to permeate the meat and help the skin crisp up nicely.
To score your ham, take a sharp knife and starting from the bottom, make a single diagonal cut approximately ⅓ of an inch deep across the whole ham. Continue upwards, making cuts in the same direction approximately 1” apart, until the whole ham is covered in diagonal cuts. Place your knife in the opposite corner and begin making the same pattern of ⅓” deep diagonal cuts but in the opposite direction of the original. Continue cutting in this direction until the ham is covered in intersecting diagonal lines, creating a diamond shape effect.
Glazing is one of the most popular and delicious ways to prepare ham. It involves basting the ham in a sugar-forward sauce, which caramelizes in the oven to produce a delicious sweet contrast to the saltiness of the pork and a crunchy glaze that adds tons of flavor and texture to the meat.
How to Make a Glaze A good glaze is equal parts sweet, tangy and spicy, and can be easily made with a few pantry ingredients. For a super simple base, combine equal parts brown sugar and citrus juice (orange or pineapple juice are good options) with a couple tablespoons of something tangy, such as dijon mustard or balsamic vinegar. Adapt to your taste by adding your favorite seasonings; honey, molasses or cinnamon are all good options for a sweeter glaze, while onion powder or minced garlic add savory notes.
Combine the ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat, bring to a boil, and stir for 3-4 minutes, until a thick syrup has formed. You can also add corn starch to thicken it up.
How to Glaze For maximum flavor, you’ll want to glaze your ham right before you put it in the oven then again before its final stage of cooking. For a thicker crust and more powerful flavor, aim for around 1 cup of glaze per every 5 pounds of ham. For a more subtle glaze, cut to ½ cup.
To begin, simply pour half of your total glaze over your ham right before you’re about to put it in the oven, and cover it with tin foil to limit the potential for burning. Cook normally. When you have 15-20 minutes left of baking time, take the ham out of the oven and drizzle the remaining glaze over the ham. Place it back in the oven, uncovered, for the remainder of its cooking time.
How to Oven-Bake a Ham
There’s a good reason most ham is baked in the oven. While it’s possible to cook ham on the stovetop or grill, oven-baking is far and away the most foolproof method for cultivating tenderness and depth of flavor without drying out the meat and nailing that uber-delicious crispy sear which takes your ham to the next level.
Pre-cooked and partially-cooked hams require different cooking techniques, so we’ve outlined how to do each below.
How to Oven-Bake a Pre-Cooked Ham
At least an hour before cooking, take your ham out of the refrigerator.
Preheat your oven to 325°F and place your ham on a large roasting pan covered with foil, cut-side down. Score your ham and spoon half of your glazing liquid if glazing.
Wrap the ham with foil and bake for approximately 15 minutes per pound.
If glazing, remove the ham 20-25 minutes before finished and re-baste for its final cooking phase.
The ham is finished when its crust is golden brown and a meat thermometer registers an internal temperature of 140 °F in its thickest part.
Remove from the oven and place on a new plate, letting sit 10 minutes before serving.
How to Oven-Bake a Partially-Cooked Ham
Preheat your oven to 325° and position a baking rack in the lower third of the oven.
Place your ham on a large roasting pan and score the skin. Add glazing liquid if glazing.
Bake for approximately 20 minutes per pound. If glazing, remove the ham 45 minutes before finished and re-baste for its final cooking phase.
Ham will be fully-cooked when the outest crust is brown and a meat thermometer registers an internal temperature of 140 °F in its thickest part.
Remove the ham from the oven and transfer to a new plate. Cover in aluminum foil and let rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.
If you’re looking for a weeknight-dinner alternative to the old chicken and steak stand-bys, ham is the perfect option for you. It’s packed with protein and tons of luscious pork flavor that pairs well with everything from mashed potatoes and a side salad, and is super easy to cook both in large and small quantities. With a simple glaze and a vegetable side, you’ve got everything you need for a comforting dinner or the perfect sunday night meal prep for a week’s worth of tasty dinners for the whole family. Want to know how to cook ham on another way, or have a suggestion for the next installment of our How To series? We'd love to hear from you! Shoot us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.