How to Cook Ham So It’s Juicy and Delicious Every Time

A thorough guide to making ham at home.


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Ham is the perfect main dish for a party, full stop. With tender, flavorful meat and a burnished, crackly crust, ham is a total showstopper, and the fact that it fills the house with a heavenly scent doesn’t hurt either. Furthermore, ham requires minimal hands-on work, which enables the hosts to leave the kitchen and join in on the fun. For these reasons and then some, it’s no wonder that ham is so often the main dish at Easter and Christmas. If you’re intimidated by cooking ham, fear not, because we made this guide to answer any questions you might have. From shopping to carving, we will show you how to cook ham at home so you can enjoy it!

How to Shop For Ham

There are three main varieties of ham that you can buy: city ham, country ham, and fresh ham. 

The most widely available of the three is city ham, which comes fully cooked and cured in a saltwater brine. When you think of what ham looks and tastes like (pink, tender, savory), you’re likely thinking of city ham. Country ham, commonly found in Appalachia, is a different beast. This type of ham is cured with a dry rub, then hung out to dry and sold uncooked. The curing and drying process yields an intensely flavored, salty meat with a drier texture than city ham. Finally, there is fresh ham, which is uncured and uncooked—just the raw meat as it is. Keep in mind that fresh ham is difficult to source, and you’re more likely to find city and country hams at your local grocery store.

Whole hams typically weigh between 10 and 18 pounds, which is great for a party, but not for a smaller dinner. If you want to make ham for a smaller group, you can often buy a half—either the shank or the sirloin (butt). We prefer the shank, because it’s easy to slice and has more fat, which translates to more flavor. However, if you’re looking for a leaner cut, go for the sirloin; just know that the sirloin has a tricky bone that you’ll have to carve around. Allot ½ pound to ¾ pound per person for bone-in ham. For boneless ham, a ½ pound per person should do the trick.

City and country hams are sometimes sold smoked, and all three varieties can be found either bone-in or boneless. We recommend buying bone-in ham, which is decidedly more flavorful and supple, and is, in our opinion, worth the extra effort to carve. If you’re more concerned with convenience, boneless ham will do the trick, but don’t expect as delicious a result as bone-in. Keep an eye out for spiral-sliced bone-in ham, which is cut with a special machine to make carving a breeze. All you’ll need to do is make one lateral cut, and you’ll be left with perfect, detached slices without sacrificing the quality.

One last heads up: You’ll often find hams with a “water added” label. We suggest avoiding hams with excess water, as it leads to less flavorful meat with a mushy consistency.

How to Cook Ham

For this section, we’ll focus on full hams (party hams, if you will). 

City hams are fully cooked when you buy them, so you can serve them at any temperature, from frigid to blazing hot. We like to serve city ham somewhere in the middle, and the best way we’ve found to warm it up is to wrap it in foil and heat it up in a low oven (somewhere around 250-325 degrees) for a couple hours, or until warmed through. 

The country ham cooking process should start the day before, with a long soak in cold water to get rid of any excess salt. Change the water every six or so hours, and scrub the surface of the ham if you find that salt chunks remain. The next day, when you’ve removed the country ham from its bath, follow the steps below. 

How to Roast Country Ham

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Prepare a roasting pan with a rack by pouring in 2 to 3 cups of water.
  3. Add the pre-soaked country ham to the pan, and wrap the whole pan tightly with foil so that it will steam in the oven.
  4. Let the country ham cook for about 3 hours (depending on its size), or until the internal temperature reaches at least 145 degrees. We like to cook ham to 160 degrees.
  5. Let the ham rest for at least 20 minutes before proceeding. Tent it with foil while resting to preserve moisture.

How to Roast Fresh Ham

  1. Take the ham out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  3. Place the ham skin-side down in a roasting pan, and, depending on its size, cook for about an hour before turning it skin-side up and roasting for another 2 to 3 hours, or until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. Baste the ham periodically with the juices it releases.
  4. Let the ham rest for at least 20 minutes before proceeding. Tent it with foil while resting to preserve moisture.

If you’re in the mood to jazz up your ham, you can score it, which just means making shallow, decorative incisions with a knife before putting it in the oven. Scoring also helps spices penetrate the meat. Another way to make it your own is by adding a glaze—like this honey-ginger version—to the ham when it gets out of the oven, or in the last minutes of cooking. While not necessary, a glaze adds a nice sweetness and glossy finish to the ham.

How Long to Cook a Ham

Cooked at 325 degrees, a low and slow country ham takes about 20-25 minutes per pound. A fresh ham cooked at 350 degrees takes about 15 minutes per pound. However, take these numbers with a big grain of salt, as every ham is different, as is every oven! Just make sure to give yourself plenty of time, and have a meat thermometer at the ready so you know when the internal temperature reaches at least 145 degrees.

How to Carve a Ham

The easiest way to learn how to carve a ham is by watching an expert, and luckily, Real Simple has a video of exactly that. Give it a watch, and follow the steps below:

  1. Trim 1-2 slices off the bottom of the ham to create a flat, steady base.
  2. Place the ham flat-side down on a cutting board.
  3. Make vertical cuts perpendicular to the bone, starting from the narrow end and working towards the thicker end. Slice only as much ham as you need.
  4. Then, cut along the bone to release the slices. 
  5. Wrap any leftover ham tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate.
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