Ham

How to Cook a Ham Like a Champ

November 15, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

Whether you’re hosting a gaggle of relatives for the holiday or planning a special night for you and your sweetie: Go ahead and bake a ham. As the late Marion Cunningham put it, “Baked ham is an ideal main dish for beginning cooks and the best answer for the harried cook.” Any leftovers freeze beautifully (hi, hello sandwiches, sautéed greens, fried rice). And what’s more festive than a honking roast? Today, we’re covering ham 101 and answering FAQ.


What is a ham, anyway?

Just like steak (ribeye! flank! bone-in! dry-aged!), the world of ham is full of terms. Let’s break down the important ones:

  • Ham is a pork cut from the animal’s hind leg that is often cured and/or smoked.
  • Cured can refer to either dry-curing or wet-curing. The former means the meat gets covered in salt, sugar, sodium nitrate/nitrite, and other spices. The latter means the meat is soaked in a water-based solution (seasoned with those same ingredients); this solution might be injected into the ham for speedier curing.
  • Spiral ham refers to the way a ham is processed and pre-sliced. The overall shape stays the same, but you have a head-start on carving. (Now, who is going to invent a spiral turkey?)

How big is a whole ham?

Big! Figure 10 to 15 pounds—note, this could serve 30 people or then some. (Estimate ⅓ to ⅔ pound per person.) If you’re a smaller group and don’t want to freeze that many leftovers, consider buying a partial ham.

Does ham always contain a bone?

Nope. You can find most hams—whether whole or partial—without a bone. That said, these boneless cuts are preferable for eating immediately (compared to glazing then baking), so they may be more processed. Be wary of added ingredients, such as water, on the label.

How long should I cook a ham in the oven?

First things first, ask your ham. As The Joy of Cooking notes, “Hams are usually labeled ‘partially cooked’ or ‘fully cooked.’ Whichever you buy, follow the instructions scrupulously.”

For partially cooked ham, you should cook it until the center reaches an internal temperature of 160°F. For fully cooked ham, which may be marked as ready to eat or something similar, you just want to warm it up to about 145°F.

Heat the oven anywhere from 300°F to 350°F. The ham will be very happy on a rack set in a roasting pan (but if you don’t have a rack, that’s okay too). There’s no need to cover it with foil, but you could if you want (some sources argue that this avoids any drying out). Just make sure you uncover before glazing.

Can I cook my ham in a slow cooker?

Yes! This method is fuss-free and hands-off. According to The Kitchn, you can cook an 8- to 10-pound fully-cooked ham in a slow cooker on low for 4 to 5 hours. On the other hand, AllRecipes recommends that the same size ham cook for 8 hours. Which is to say, you do you! Since you’re starting with something that’s already cooked, it’s hard to go wrong.

With the oven at 325°F, The Joy of Cooking recommends the following cook times:

  • Whole (10- to 15-pound) ham: 18 to 20 minutes per pound
  • Half (5- to 7-pound) ham: 20 minutes per pound
  • Shank or butt portion: 35 minutes per pound

How do I make a glaze for ham?

A glaze is a great way to make your ham your own. Maple-chipotle? Ginger-clove? Paprika-honey? You tell me! It’s also makes the roast super glossy and beautiful. Just keep these tips in mind:

  • Add the glaze at the right time. Figure 30 minutes to 1 hour before the ham has reached its goal internal temperature. Score if you want (more on that below), then paint on your glaze (a pastry brush works well here).
  • Increase the temperature, or don’t. Some recipes will tell you to bump up the temperature to 375°F, 400°F, or higher. Some don’t. It all depends on how caramelized you want your glaze. Just be mindful that the higher the temperature, the quicker it will burn.
  • Score the ham for drama. While a crosshatch pattern isn’t necessary, it’s utterly classic, and it really lets your glaze shine (pun intended). Do this step right before you glaze the ham and use a super-sharp knife.
  • Don’t make the glaze too salty (or too sweet). Remember, the ham itself is already quite salty. The glaze is a great place to add contrast and intrigue (yes, intrigue!). Think sweeteners (brown sugar, maple syrup, honey), spices (cayenne, hot sauce, ground mustard, Old Bay), tang (cider vinegar, malt vinegar, rice vinegar), and even booze (bourbon, rum).
  • Try this easy formula. Equal parts jam and Dijon mustard. That’s it! Use your favorite jam, from apricot to blueberry.
  • Steal glazes from not-ham recipes. Just because the glaze wasn’t created for a ham doesn’t mean it won’t get along with a ham. Check these out for some inspiration:

What are your best tips for cooking a ham? Share your oven strategy and glaze ideas in the comments below.
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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.

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