Selecting the Right Christmas Ham

selecting the right christmas ham

What do you picture when you think of a traditional Christmas dinner? Many meat-lovers imagine a plump, juicy ham at the center of a sweeping holiday spread of sides and sweets. A perfectly prepared Christmas ham brings flavors and family members together, making the Christmas dinner something to celebrate in and of itself.

After looking forward to a holiday feast all year, it can be disappointing to sit down to a tough, chewy or tasteless ham. But you can avoid a Christmas dinner letdown by following this guide to choosing a Christmas ham. Keep reading to find out the different styles of ham, how to pick a good ham, the best type of ham to smoke, carving tips and what side dishes to serve with your holiday ham.

how to choose a ham

How to Choose a Ham

Before choosing a Christmas ham, it’s important to know the basics. Ham is a cut of meat that comes from the rear leg of a pig and gets smoked, salted or dried. A full 20-pound ham can serve up to 30 people, so make sure you buy only as much ham as you need — a good rule of thumb is about three-quarters to one pound of meat per person.

The 3 Main Types of Ham

types of ham city ham country ham fresh ham

Once the pork has been cut from a pig’s back leg, it is typically cured for preservation. Ham is usually cured with a wet brine or dry rub and then hung to dry. The method by which ham is cured places it within one of three main categories:

1. City ham: This is the most common type of ham you’ll find at the grocery store because it’s the easiest to cook. City hams are usually wet-cured with brine and sold fully cooked. Some city hams are smoked after being cured while others are not, so be sure to check the label to know exactly what you’re getting.

2. Country ham: Country hams get cured with a dry rub, then hung to dry and sold uncooked. Country hams can be a bit dry, extremely salty and more difficult to find, but they still have a large fan base. Slices of country ham are usually very thin and soaked for 24 hours before being cooked. Country ham’s dry chewiness can be an acquired taste and texture combo, but those who love it are loyal.

3. Fresh ham: This type of ham is uncured and uncooked, which is what makes it so “fresh.” Fresh hams look and feel the same as a fresh uncooked pork roast and have to be cooked by some method before being safe to eat. Like most specialty cuts of meat, you’ll probably have to seek out a fresh ham at your local butcher’s shop.

City or Country?

Most holiday chefs can immediately eliminate fresh ham from the list, narrowing it down to city ham or country ham. City ham has a drier texture and a more intense salty flavor, so it’s usually safer to go with a city ham if you’re unsure whether everyone would like a country ham and looking for a crowd-pleaser. Country hams are also not sold pre-sliced, so opting for a city ham could save you some time and energy. 

City hams are moist, mild and almost always fully cooked by the time they make it to the store. Therefore, most city ham recipes just involve glazing and reheating the ham. But to avoid any Christmas Day disasters, double-check the label for cooking directions. City hams are often sold pre-sliced, known as spiral-sliced, so you can spend less time in the kitchen and more time with the family over the holidays.

All that being said, if you know your guests are raving country ham fans, by all means, go for the country ham!

How to Choose a City Ham

bone-in vs boneless ham

If you’re like most holiday cooks and choose a city ham, you’ll then be faced with even more choices. These are the three basic decisions you’ll have to make about your city ham: 

1. Bone-in or Boneless

As long as you don’t mind carving, bone-in is the way to go. Meat from a bone-in ham is always more flavorful than boneless meat. Plus, its presentation is more stunning, and the leftover bone is perfect for flavoring soups or stews later. This makes the extra effort required for a bone-in ham worth it, but if the holiday buzz has you in a rush, you might benefit from the convenience of a boneless ham.

As its name suggests, a boneless ham comes with the bone removed, which makes cutting the meat much easier. Boneless hams are pressed into an oval shape to be sold, allowing the added salt to break down the ham’s protein to make it even easier to carve. 

If you’re looking for a happy medium, try a semi-boneless ham. In a semi-boneless ham, the shank bone has been removed, but the leg bone remains intact to give the meat an extra boost of flavor while making carving more manageable. Regardless of whether you choose a bone-in, semi-boneless or boneless ham, steer clear of hams labeled “ham and water product” or “water added,” as hams packaged with more water have less flavor and a worse texture.

2. Shank or Butt

If you decide to buy a bone-in ham, you’ll need to choose between a piece of meat from the shank end or the butt end of the pig. To make your choice easier, here’s a breakdown of each end:

  • Shank: Ham from the shank end is the picturesque ham profile that pops into most people’s heads when they think of a Christmas ham. The pork comes from the leg portion of the pig and tends to be a bit leaner. Bone-in ham from the shank has one long bone, which can make carving a breeze.
  • Butt: Ham from the butt end comes from the top half of the ham and typically has a richer flavor due to its tender, fattier meat. You have to work for the extra flavor, though, as carving around the T-shaped bone found in ham from the butt is challenging. 
uncut vs spiral cut ham

3. Uncut or Spiral Cut

A whole ham retains its natural moisture better than a ham that’s already been cut, making it the obvious choice if your family prefers moist cuts of meat. But you also can’t ignore the convenience of a pre-sliced ham. 

A ham becomes spiral cut by going through a spiral-slicing machine that uses an oscillating blade to work around the meat’s bone and produce thin cuts of ham. By buying a spiral cut ham, you can serve your family perfectly spiralized slices without ever touching a knife.

Most spiral cut hams even come pre-glazed, so the only thing you have to do is pop them in the oven to get them warm before serving. However, this might take the fun out of preparing a big holiday meal for a lot of people, so if you want to use a classic family recipe or start a new tradition, look for a ham that hasn’t been glazed.

holiday ham sampling try before you buy

Holiday Ham Shopping Dos and Don’ts

Your ham buying adventure isn’t over after you’ve settled on what style of ham you want. Before bringing a ham home, make sure you follow these guidelines for choosing the most mouthwatering ham possible:

  • Do keep it fresh: No one wants an old Christmas ham. Wait to buy your ham until a few days before, so it’s guaranteed to be fresh.
  • Don’t keep your hands to yourself: Poking a ham is the best way to tell how fresh a ham is because fresh ham is moist and soft, easily giving a bit when you poke it. If a ham is tough to the touch, it’s too old.
  • Do be picky: Read the ingredients in your ham to make sure it doesn’t contain any harmful preservatives, additives, gluten or any ingredients a family member is allergic to. There’s no place for medical emergencies at the holiday dinner table. 
  • Don’t be a Scrooge: Great deals typically apply only to cheap ham that’s been injected with extra water, which detracts from its taste and texture. Embrace the generous spirit of the holiday season and get meat labeled “ham” or “ham with natural juices” to make sure your meal bursts with flavor.
  • Do try before you buy: Most butchers will let customers taste test any type of meat before they buy it, so don’t hesitate to ask for a sample. This way, you can experience the saltiness, smoke, succulence and texture of the ham before making your final decision.
  • Don’t forget the leftovers: When wrapped up properly, extra ham can last for a few days in the fridge. Get creative with your leftover holiday ham by repurposing it to make a soup, stir-fry or even an omelet.
how to cook a christmas ham on the grill

How to Cook a Ham

Depending on what type of ham you buy, you won’t need to do much for your ham to prepare it for the holiday dinner table. Fully cooked city hams are ready to eat after being warmed to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, while uncooked city hams should be baked until reaching 145 degrees Fahrenheit to cook them through — about 15 minutes per pound at 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Of course, using the oven is a perfectly fine way to cook your Christmas ham, but if you really want to bring the holiday cheer, cooking a ham on a pellet grill is your best option. Whether your ham is pre-cooked or not, you can cook it on a pellet grill to give it a bold, wood-smoked flavor.

When using a wood pellet smoker, the name of the game is low and slow, so make sure you factor in a little extra time to cook up some Christmas magic. A properly smoked ham will take around four to five hours to cook, but the exact timing may vary by size and cut. The good news is you don’t have to be standing over your smoker the whole time your ham’s cooking, giving you the chance to step away and whip up a glaze or some tasty sides to go with it.

To prepare an uncooked ham on a wood pellet grill, simply fire up the heat to about 225 degrees Fahrenheit and let it soak up the smoke until it reaches a color you’re happy with. For a pre-cooked ham, you can turn the grill’s temperature down even lower to give it a deeper smoke. For either type of ham, coat it in glaze periodically throughout its final hour of cooking to get the best flavor possible.

Although any style of ham can be smoked on a pellet grill, an uncut ham is your best option to prevent losing moisture and dryness. But, if you’re short on time, a spiral ham smokes slightly faster and could get your family to the dinner table quicker.

how to carve a christmas ham

How to Carve a Ham

Once your ham is done cooking, the only thing separating you from finally digging in to Christmas dinner is getting it into slices. If you were bold enough to choose a bone-in uncut ham, now’s your time to be the holiday hero. With just a cutting board, sharp knife and carving fork, you can amaze your family with your meat carving mastery.

Follow these five simple steps to carve your holiday ham like a pro:

1. Gather your supplies: Find enough space to set up your slicing station and lay down your cutting board, knife and carving fork. Make sure you’ve chosen a spot that’s out of the way enough that you have the room you need to work without worrying about elbowing one of your holiday guests.

2. Carve off the boneless pieces: Arrange the ham on the cutting board, so the bone is perpendicular to the board, then use the carving fork to stabilize the ham as you carve around the bone to remove meat from the boneless section.

Slice it up: Cut the meat from the boneless sections into vertical slices and place them on the serving platter. Cover them with tin foil so they stay warm as you continue carving.

3. Carve around the bone: Using the carving fork to steady the meat again, make horizontal cuts through the meat until you hit the bone.

4. Slice some more: Now, make vertical cuts through the meat, that the ham falls off in nice, even slices that you can immediately transfer to the platter and serve up!

How to Serve a Ham

how to serve a christmas ham

Of course, your Christmas ham will be the star of the show. But like any good Christmas pageant, it’ll need some supporting roles — or rolls. If you feel confident that your Christmas ham will be a meat masterpiece but uncertain about what to serve alongside it, you’ve come to the right place.

Here are some side dish suggestions to complete your festive feast:

Fresh Bread

What’s better than walking into a restaurant that already has bread on the table? Like warming up before a race, dinner rolls are the perfect side to get you ready for the main event. Rolls are a holiday dinner classic, but they are not the only option — try serving up fresh buttermilk biscuits or a loaf of crusty artisan bread if you’re looking to jazz up the holidays.

To keep your family from filling up on rolls before even making it to the ham you worked so hard on, you can incorporate bread into your dinner table spread by making a savory bread pudding. If bread isn’t your family’s style, but you still want a supporting carb, consider pairing your Christmas ham with a nice rice pilaf or risotto.

Winter Vegetables

Roasted root vegetables like butternut squash, carrots or parsnips are the perfect companions for a meaty main during the colder months. Warm and filling, wintry vegetables are welcome additions at any Christmas table. As a bonus, you can use the same glaze from the ham to lightly coat your carrots and tie the whole meal together.

Among your veggie spread, it’s always a good idea to have something green on the dinner table. Green bean casserole is a staple of the holiday season for a reason — it’s the ultimate ham complement. Brussel sprouts or broccoli can also balance a rich holiday meal well while providing some much-needed nutrients.

kid-friendly sides with christmas ham

Kid-Friendly Sides

No matter how delicious you make greens taste, some youngsters will always resist. Having some kid-friendly sides on hand can be a good bargaining chip in getting them to eat their veggies. These sides can also be vegetables that are a bit easier to convince picky eaters to try, such as creamed corn or any vegetable covered in cheese.

Of course, the most famous meat mate is potatoes. Both kids and the young-at-heart will agree that there’s no going wrong with a starchy side dish. From simply baked or mashed to scalloped or au gratin, potatoes in any form are a ham’s best friend.

A Sweet Ending

What’s a holiday dinner without dessert? Sure, there’s always Christmas cookies and candy canes to fall back on, but a proper Christmas dinner needs a grand finale. Pull out all the stops by capping your holiday feast with something indulgent, like a festive chocolate yule log or a fruity Christmas pie for something a little on the lighter side.

Cook Your Christmas Ham on a Grilla Grill

cook your christmas ham on a grilla grill

Make the holidays memorable this year by cooking your Christmas ham on a wood pellet Grilla Grill. Any ham prepared on a Grilla Grill will be smoked to perfection and pack enough flavor to make your family completely forget about sides. So, after you’ve gone to all the trouble of picking the highest quality holiday ham possible, put it to good use by smoking it on a Grilla Grill.

Cooking ham on a pellet grill from Grilla Grills is easy and convenient with a one-button start-up and temperature control, so you won’t need to add starter fluid to your holiday shopping list. Plus, investing in a wood pellet Grilla Grill will save you the costs of fueling a comparably sized gas grill long after the Christmas lights are down. Our sturdy stainless steel grills are built to endure years of use and come backed by a 4-year warranty.

Check out our online inventory of Grilla Grills smokers, or locate a store nearest you to get a wood pellet grill that you’ll use long after the holiday season.

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