Photo: Ralph Anderson

Don't risk having a boring, predictable ham at your Easter celebration!

Most all of our big holiday meals revolve around a centerpiece main dish. There is the Thanksgiving Turkey, the Christmas Roast, and the Easter Ham. Along with a mouthwatering dessert, guests will usually remember (and talk about) the main dish, and whether it was dry and tasteless or moist and flavorful.  Ham, which comes from the leg of the hog, is really a simple piece of meat to prepare. Follow this handy guideline to find the right cut, tweak your technique, and achieve the perfect result. Once you have decided on whether you will prepare a whole ham or shank portion, go through this list of fabulous side dishes and choose the perfect accompanying dishes. And speaking of mouthwatering desserts, choose one of these mile-high layer cakes and really give your guests something to talk about.

Related: Easter Recipes & Table Settings

Ham 101:
Cooked hams can be served directly from the refrigerator. If you'd like to serve it hot, heat in a 350° oven to an internal temperature of 140°. At 140°, the ham will be thoroughly warmed and moist. 

Uncooked hams should be heated to an internal temperature of 145° in a 350° oven. Depending on the size, plan to cook it 18 to 25 minutes per pound.

Dry-cured hams are rubbed with salt, sugar, and other seasonings, and then stored until the salt penetrates the meat. 

Wet-cured hams are seasoned with a brine solution, which keeps the meat moist and produces a more tender texture.

Choose the Right Cut:
Whole hams include both the butt ham and shank ham from the leg. These larger cuts weigh anywhere from 10 lb. to more than 20 lb. and are available bone-in and boneless. If you're a beginner, try one of the smaller choices, but go for the bone.  It can make all the difference when flavoring a pot of soup or beans.

Butt ham is taken from the top half of the pork leg. It can be fattier than the bottom half, yet it contains more meat and is easy to carve around the bone.

Shank ham is taken from the bottom half of the leg. It contains less fat but is not as meaty as the butt. It can be a little more difficult to carve.

Spiral-sliced ham is precooked and conveniently pre-sliced into pieces that are all the same thickness. You should use or freeze these hams four to five days after you buy them.

Dry-cured hams are not usually spiral sliced; this prevents the pieces from drying out too quickly.

Country ham is dry cured by rubbing the meat with curing ingredients that include salt and sugar. The hams are smoked and then aged 6 to 12 months or longer to develop a more intense flavor. They may have a coarser texture than wet-cured hams. These hams can be eaten raw but are usually soaked in water to reduce saltiness, and then baked or boiled.

Picnic ham is not considered a true ham because it is from the shoulder of the pig. It may be fresh or smoked. Generally, the picnic cut is not as lean or as tender as ham, but it is less expensive.

Remember Your Leftovers: Leftover ham freezes well, so think of future meals when purchasing a ham. Go ahead and buy more than you need and eat the leftovers in sandwiches, omelets, soups, quiches, etc. Slice and dice portions to freeze in freezer safe bags, then toss into soups and pasta dishes. Plan to buy at least 1 pound of ham per person so you will have plenty of leftovers.

Moisture is Key: Follow your recipe instructions but, generally, you want to gently cook ham with at least ½ cup of liquid in the pan. Cover it with foil to prevent the ham from drying out. Remove the foil once you have applied the glaze.

Make Your Own Glaze: Sometimes the glaze packets that come with store-bought cooked hams contain a lot of sugar, sodium, and hard-to-pronounce ingredients. Give your Easter centerpiece an added personal touch and make your own glaze.

But Don’t Glaze too Early: Don’t make the mistake and apply glaze right when you begin baking the ham.  It will burn. Again, follow your recipe instructions, but, if you are just winging it, spoon or brush on glaze 15-30 minutes before taking the ham out of the oven. Keep an eye on it to make sure the sugars in the glaze aren’t burning.

Low and Slow Isn’t Just for ‘Cue: Ham is a big, thick, piece of meat. In order for it to heat and cook thoroughly, you need to do it at a low oven temperature. However, you want your glaze (and oftentimes some of the outside fat) to be caramelized and crispy, so you might need to crank the oven up higher after you have applied the glaze.   

Let It Rest: Just like roasts and turkeys, once you pull the ham out of the oven it needs to sit a few minutes in order for it to be juicy. Follow recipe suggestions, or wait before slicing.