How to Cook a Ham Like a Champ

Our guide on how to cook a ham, from oven temperature to glazing technique.

November 11, 2021
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.” Leftover ham freezes beautifully (hi, hello sandwiches, sautéed greens, fried rice). And what’s more festive than a honking roast? Cooking a beautiful bone-in ham with a Dijon mustard or maple syrup is easier than you may think (promise!). So today, we’re answering your most frequently asked questions, like *What is a ham, anyway? What types of hams are there to choose from in the grocery store? How many minutes per pound? Do I always have to cook my ham in the oven? What about a slow-cooker or Instant Pot?

We generally think of baked ham as the centerpiece on an Easter or Christmas table. If you’ve never baked a ham before, start with our Super Simple Glazed Ham; a half ham is scored and covered in a combination of whole-grain mustard, honey, nutmeg, ground cloves, and brown sugar. And then something really cool happens. To keep the ham moist—and to give it even more flavor—use a spray bottle filled with bourbon (!!!) to mist the brown sugar-spice coating. It’s an innovative, mess-free technique that lends itself to so many other applications.

Ahead, here’s what to know about cooking this spectacular roast.

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. You’ll find it sold as a bone-in or boneless cut.
  • 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. You may even find it pre-glazed with the popular duo of brown sugar and honey, but we prefer it without these additives; that way, every home cook can make it their own. (Now, who is going to invent a spiral turkey?)

How big is a whole ham?

Big! Most boneless spiral hams weigh about five bones, but bone-in cuts will weigh even more, at least 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.”

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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 for three different cuts of ham:

  • 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 also makes the roast super glossy and beautiful. Just keep these tips in mind when brushing glaze over the ham:

  • Add the glaze at the right time. Figure 30 minutes to one 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, or orange juice), spices (cayenne, hot sauce, ground mustard, Old Bay), tang (cider vinegar, malt vinegar, or rice vinegar), and even booze (bourbon or 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 was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.