Butt or shank? Boneless or bone-in? The choices seem endless.

Easter, Christmas, or any special occasion–for many people, a holiday meal is not complete without a beautiful, spice-studded, sweet and salty ham as the centerpiece. Growing up, you remember Mom pulling a glistening ham out of the hot oven, but you never gave it much thought as to where a ham comes from or how to go about purchasing one. But now it is your turn to choose a ham and you are overwhelmed with the different cuts and types. Here is a quick lesson on what ham is and how to choose the right one for your meal.

Ham comes from the back legs and thigh area of a pig. A whole ham is a large piece of meat, weighing in about 18-20 lbs., so most grocery stores sell them in sections. Ham can be sold both boneless and bone-in. (Remember to keep the hambone to flavor soups, stews, and greens.) The three most common cuts of ham are butt end, ham shank, and center slice.

Cuts of Ham

Butt or sirloin end comes from the upper portion of the leg. This end contains the femur and pelvic bone, which can be difficult to carve around. It is a more tender and flavorful cut of meat and can often more expensive.

Shank is the lower half of the leg and is the cut that is most associated with a baked ham. The shank cut contains the femur bone only, making it a little easier to carve. It is more budget-friendly, but the meat has a tendency to dry out more during cooking.

Center Cut slices have been cut from the center area of the leg and usually sold in ½ – 1 inch slices.

Easter Dinner with spiral cut ham and side dishes
Credit: Helen Norman; Styling: Carrie Purcell

Common Types of Ham

When shopping, you will notice several types of ham are available. The following terms refer to the way in which the ham was prepared or the region where the pig was raised.

Black Forest. In order for a ham to earn the name Black Forest, it must be produced in the Black Forest region of Germany. It is boneless and very lean. Raw ham is salted, then seasoned with a distinct blend of spices, which gives Black Forest ham its unmistakable black outer coating during smoking. After the ham has cured for a couple of weeks, it is then cold smoked. Black Forest ham has an intense salty flavor.

Smoked Ham. This ham has usually been wet cured, meaning it has been brined in a mixture of salt water and spices, then smoked.  These hams come fully cooked and are safe to eat without baking first, meaning they are ready to be used for sandwiches and ham salads. However, they are best when they have been heated through. This type of ham may also be referred to as city ham.

Country Ham. This is a popular cut of ham consumed in the southern United States. It is dry-cured, meaning it's rubbed with salt and seasonings, smoked, then aged for several months or even years. You may find country hams labeled Virginia Ham or Smithfield Ham. Virginia ham is country ham made in the state of Virginia. A Smithfield ham is also a Virginia ham, but it has been specifically produced in the Smithfield region of the state. Country ham is usually sold and consumed in thick slices or as a half portion.

Spiral Cut. Pre-cooked, pre-sliced spiral sliced hams are perfect if you are short on time or don't like fussing with a carving knife. You can warm them up, but keep in mind spiral sliced hams have a tendency to dry out faster than other hams, so keep them covered with aluminum foil when heating.