City ham or country ham?

Photo courtesy of National Pork Board. For more information about pork, visit

For the perfect holiday dinner, you’re going to need a ham. But how do you pick out a ham, and what is the difference between city ham and country ham?

If you’re in pursuit of a heavenly ham, read on for our answers to commonly asked ham questions.

City ham or country ham?

Country ham has a deep, rich and intensely salty flavor that is dry-cured over a long period. City hams are cured in a solution of salt, water, preservatives and various sweet or savory flavors and usually are smoked over hardwoods like maple or hickory for a well-rounded, smoky flavor.

Bone in or bone out?

Experts feel that hams that have retained a bone have the best shape, texture and flavor, and swear by the maxim that the less you disturb the ham, the juicier and more flavorful it is.

Whole ham or half?

A whole ham usually weighs between 15 and 17 pounds, and the ideal half ham is seven to eight pounds. There are lots of things to do with leftover ham but, as writer and wit Dorothy Parker once quipped, “Eternity is two people and a ham.” Don’t overbuy for your crowd.

How is the ham labeled?

Plain “Ham” on the label means no water has been added. “Ham With Natural Juices” has 7-9 percent water added. “Ham With Water Added” has up to 10 percent extra water, while “Ham and Water Product” may contain any amount of water (as the amount of water increases, the quality of the ham decreases). Many gourmet cooks seem to prefer the “Ham With Water Added” product, with just enough added moisture to keep the ham from drying out in the oven.

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How much fat?

The amount of water added seems to affect the ham less than the fat content. A modest amount of fat helps the ham’s flavor and texture dramatically. When choosing, you’ll have to eyeball the ham to be sure it has an even layer of fat all around – the fat content won’t be on the label.

Ham contains enough salt, sugar, smoke and liquid to keep it moist and flavorful regardless of how you cook it, provided that it starts out with enough fat.

How to cook a ham?

To cook a half city ham, start by scoring the surface, cutting diagonal lines in each direction to form diamond shapes. A low oven temperature assures that the outer section doesn’t overcook before the center heats through.

Paint the scored surface with a flavorful glaze (our suggestions: honey-apricot, horseradish or bourbon), cover with foil and pop the whole thing in the oven at 250 degrees, which is low enough to crisp up the ham’s surface and yet keep the glaze from burning.

Then forget about it. After 2 ½ hours, remove the foil and brush the cut surface once or twice with the pan drippings. When a meat thermometer inserted into the center registers about 140 degrees, it’s done and you’ve got a deliciously moist and tender triumph that looks good, too!


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