How To Choose The Right Cut Of Ham For Your Holiday Meal

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 thought about where ham comes from or how to purchase one. But now it is your turn to choose ham for your holiday gathering, and you are overwhelmed with the different cuts and types. Here is a quick lesson on ham and selecting the right one for your meal.

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

What is Ham?

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

Cuts of Ham

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

Shank is the lower half of the leg and is the cut most associated with 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 tends to dry out more during cooking.

Center Cut usually sells in half to one-inch slices from the center area of the leg.

Common Types of Ham

When shopping, you will notice several types of ham are available. The following terms refer to how butchers prepare the ham or the pig's raised region.

Black Forest

A pig must be raised in the Black Forest region of Germany for a ham to earn the name Black Forest. It is boneless and very lean. Raw ham is salted, then seasoned with a distinct blend of spices, which gives Black Forest ham the unmistakable black outer coating during smoking. After the ham cures for a couple of weeks, it is 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 are heated. This type of ham may also refer to city ham.

Country Ham

This ham is a popular cut consumed in the southern United States. It is dry-cured, 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 was produced specifically 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, 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 that spiral-sliced hams tend to dry out faster than other hams, so keep them covered with aluminum foil when heating.

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