Even with a ready-to-eat ham, you'll still need to heat it up if you want a warm centerpiece. But doing so can lead to a dried-out cut of meat.
There are two main reasons why ham can get dried out in the oven, says Shawn Matijevich, lead chef for online culinary arts and food operations at the Institute of Culinary Education.
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First up: The dry, hot air in the oven, which draws out moisture even as it heats up the ham.
Overcooking is the other culprit. As the ham cooks, the proteins in the muscle fibers get drawn to each other in a process known as coagulation, Matijevich says. This is why meat's texture and color change as it cooks, he says. "At a certain point, the spaces between the protein molecules become so tight that they are actually too small for water molecules and the water gets squeezed out," Matijevich says.
The result: dry pork.
Fortunately, there are ways you can cook your ham so it remains moist and tender — and that's true whether you're dealing with an uncooked or ready-to-eat ham, and if you're using the oven or air fryer to heat it up.
How to Heat a Fully Cooked Ham
If you've got a ham for a holiday dinner, chances are it's cured and fully cooked, per the Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "This is what people know and love as ham," Matijevich says.
That means you'll simply have to reheat it — but do so carefully, as you'll want to make sure your ham stays moist.
Here's how to heat a fully cooked ham — and prevent it from drying out.
Things You'll Need
Fully cooked ham
1. Thaw Ham
If the ham is frozen, thaw it in the refrigerator — this takes 4 to 6 hours per pound of ham, per the USDA.
2. Remove Ham From Fridge
About 45 minutes before you plan on cooking the ham, remove it from the refrigerator so it can reach room temperature, says David Rose, executive chef at Omaha Steaks.
3. Preheat the Oven
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. Place the Ham in Roasting Pan
Use foil to tent the ham: "Lightly wrap aluminum foil around the ham in a way where it's barely touching or not touching the ham," Rose says. Doing this helps seal in moisture.
Then, place it in the oven.
5. Prepare a Glaze (Optional)
There are all sorts of options available for the glaze. Traditional glaze ingredients are sweet, with honey, brown sugar and maple syrup often featured.
6. Cook the Ham
Heat the ham in the oven.
7. Glaze the Ham (Optional)
Once the ham is about 15 minutes from being fully reheated, remove the foil and apply the glaze you prepared earlier. Apply three times, glazing every 5 minutes, Rose suggests.
8. Remove the Ham From the Oven
A ready-to-eat ham is done once it reaches an internal temperature of 140 degrees F. Always check the temperature with a meat thermometer; you can't eyeball a meat's doneness, nor can you smell it.
9. Rest the Ham
Let the ham rest for at least 3 minutes, and up to 20 minutes. Then, cut and serve.
How to Prepare an Uncooked Ham
"If you are able to find a fresh, raw, uncooked ham, the process will be a very involved one to get it to resemble a cooked holiday ham," Matijevich says.
The prep work for an uncooked ham starts days in advance — that way, you'll have enough time to thaw the meat (if it's frozen) and brine it, if you wish to do so.
Things You'll Need
Brine solution: salt, water, sugar and spice (optional)
Spices and seasonings (optional)
1. Thaw the Ham
If the ham is frozen, defrost it in the refrigerator for at least 48 hours, Rose says.
It'll take 4 to 6 hours to defrost every pound of ham, per the USDA. That means a 5-pound ham will take 20 to 30 hours. You can also thaw ham in the microwave or submerge it in cold water, but thawing it in the fridge is the best option, according to the USDA.
2. Brine the Ham (Optional)
About 24 or 72 hours before you plan to cook the ham, it's a good idea to brine it in a solution of salt, water, sugar and spices, Matijevich says. Doing so leads to "a juicier product that will eat more like a pork roast."
Alternatively, you can apply a dry rub and wrap the ham in muslin for several days, Matijevich says.
If you're brining or applying a dry rub, rinse the ham after the process, then pat it dry.
Use a sharp knife to score your ham on its fattiest side, Matijevich says. "This will give it a beautiful presentation, but it will also help the fat render out. Fat is a good thing for flavor, but too much will cause it to become cloying."
3. Remove the Ham From the Fridge
About an hour before you want to cook your ham, take it out of the refrigerator and let it get to room temperature, Rose says.
4. Preheat the Oven
Heat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cooking time will vary depending on what kind of ham you have. Here are time estimates of cook time, per the USDA:
- Whole, bone-in ham (uncooked): 18-20 minutes per pound
- Half, bone-in ham (uncooked): 22-25 minutes per pound
- Whole leg, bone-in ham (fresh): 22-26 minutes per pound
- The whole leg, boneless ham (fresh): 24-28 minutes per pound
- Half, bone-in ham (fresh): 35-40 minutes per pound
It's a good idea to have a sense of how long your ham will need to cook so you can time your meal and won't need to open and close the oven door unnecessarily.
5. Place the Ham in a Roasting Pan
If you wish, you can add spices at this point. Matijevich suggests rubbing it with salt and pepper, coriander seed, mustard seed, garlic powder and paprika.
Add liquid to the bottom of the pan.
"I like to put together equal parts root beer, brown sugar, white sugar and maple syrup. I flavor this with clove, cinnamon, vanilla bean and star anise," Matijevich says. You'll want to make enough of this mixture for it to be 1.5 inches deep at the bottom of the pan, he says.
You can also add pineapple rings or stud the ham with cloves if you'd like, Matijevich says.
6. Bake the Ham, Basting Occasionally
Put the ham in the pan with the fat side up. Cook it uncovered, Rose says. Flip it halfway through the cooking time, he says.
Baste with the liquid from the bottom of the pan every 20 minutes.
"If it happens too quickly, or the pan is getting dry, go ahead and add a little water to thin it out. The sugars will burn easily if left unattended," Matijevich says.
Cook the ham until it has an internal temperature of 145 degrees F in the thickest center-most part of the ham," Rose says.
7. Rest and Serve
Once the ham is done, take it out of the oven and let it rest for up to 20 minutes. Slice and serve.
Do You Have to Cover Ham in Foil?
"Not necessarily," Matijevich says.
In fact, he recommends skipping it if you're basting the meat with a sugary liquid that will become a glaze. "Part of the flavor development is the browning that happens at high temperatures. If you keep it in foil, you will 'foil' that browning," he says.
Foil can be useful if the browning occurs too quickly, Matijevich says.
How to Air Fry a Ham
If you have an air fryer at home — and, crucially, if it's big enough to fit your ham — this is an option Matijevich endorses. "When it comes to fully cooked hams, the faster you can get them to temperature without going over, the better," Matijevich says.
Here's how to air fry a fully cooked ham, according to Rose:
- Preheat the air fryer to 325 degrees F.
- Tent the room-temperature ham with aluminum foil.
- Air fry the ham for around 10 minutes per pound. (A ready-to-eat ham is done when its internal temperature reaches 140 degrees F.)
- Remove the ham from the air fryer.
- Let it rest up to 20 minutes (and at least 3, per the USDA) before cutting and serving.
You can brush on a glaze when the ham is about two-thirds of the way through the reheating process.
"Once the internal temperature reaches 140 degrees F, crank up the heat to 380 degrees Fahrenheit and give it one last roast for about 3 to 5 minutes to get that layer of glaze the perfect caramelized consistency," Matijevich says.
Key Tips for a Moist Ham
Prioritize the following factors for a properly cooked — and moist — ham, Rose says:
- A quality ham
- Thawing it in the fridge
- Bringing the ham to room temperature before placing it in the oven
- Preheating your oven
- Resting the ham before slicing