Ham makes for a tasty main dish, especially at holidays and big get-togethers — except for when its flavor mimics a salt lick.
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"The reason ham is so prone to being salty is that ham is cured with large amounts of salt," says David Rose, executive chef at Omaha Steaks.
That salt used to be necessary during pre-refrigerator days, as it prevented bacteria from developing, says Shawn Matijevich, lead chef for online culinary arts and food operations at the Institute of Culinary Education. "Even though we don't need to salt it anymore, it turns out that the process of salt curing hams makes them taste really good," Matijevich says.
That saltiness is part of ham's character.
"If you're averse to salt, don't put ham on your menu," says the award-winning chef and restaurateur David Burke. Aside from fresh ham (aka, uncooked and uncured), all ham is salty. Still, while you can't get rid of the inherently salty taste of ham, there are tactics you can use to get rid of some and mask the saltiness a bit, Burke says.
We asked these three chefs to share their favorite tactics for a delicious and not-so-salty ham — along with what to do when your cooked ham still turns out a bit too salty for your taste buds.
How to Choose a Ham
A cheaper ham will tend to be saltier. That’s because adding more salts speeds up the preservation process, Burke says. “Stick to the higher end, more expensive ones” if you’re looking to avoid salt, Burke recommends.
You can also opt for ham labeled as having lower salt, such as:
3 Ways to Cut Down on Ham’s Salty Flavor
Try these strategies to reduce the salt in the ham, and counteract the saltiness:
1. Soak Ham in Water
Taking a bath in water will help cut down on ham's saltiness. There are two ways to approach this.
First up, the simple route: "Soak the ham in water overnight," Rose says. You can even soak it for up to 48 hours. "The longer it soaks, the more salt is eliminated." After the ham soaks, discard the water, and pat the ham dry. "The ham will be significantly less salty," Rose says.
Burke recommends another water-based option — poaching the ham. To poach, follow these steps, Burke says:
- Cut the ham in two pieces — this creates more surfaces for the water to leach out the salt, Burke says.
- Poach it in water for 30 minutes.
- Remove it from the poaching liquid.
- Rinse it in cold water.
- Pat it dry, which will help remove salt on the ham's surface.
Keep that poaching liquid, Burke says. "That will yield a nice smoky broth base for pea soup and other uses." In fact, that ham-flavored liquid is why Burke prefers poaching to an overnight soak, as you're setting yourself up for a delicious soup later in the week.
2. Don’t Baste With the Drippings
As the ham cooks, like most meats, drippings occur at the bottom of the pan. Resist the temptation to baste with this liquid. "If you baste with the drippings, you're adding salt back onto the ham," Burke says.
And, if your ham is sitting in the drippings — and not elevated on a wire rack — you might want to use your baster to remove them from the pan completely.
"Removing the pan drippings does reduce the saltiness of the ham because you're eliminating the salty juices and fat from the cured ham, not allowing the ham to continue cooking in its pan drippings," Rose says.
3. Add Sweetness
"Anything sweet is going to counteract and balance the salt," Burke says. Here's how to add sweetness to your ham:
- Baste or marinate it in soda. Doing so will "yield that sweet-salt flavor ratio that is so tasty," Burke says. Coca-Cola is a traditional choice in the South, Burke says. You can also turn to ginger ale or lemon-lime flavors of soda, Rose says. "The citrus and sugar from the soda balance the saltiness with their acid and sweetness."
- Top with fruit: Pineapples are a common choice to place on ham, Rose says. You can also use peaches or maraschino cherries.
- Add a glaze: Incorporate sweet notes (think: honey, brown sugar and maple syrup) into a glaze. Brush this glaze on the ham when it's nearly done with its cooking time in the oven.
All this sweetness isn't making your ham any less salty. That is, you're not removing salt. But the sweetness adds balance, Matijevich says. It "helps with the perception of saltiness."
Acid can also counteract salt. Rose recommends using vinegar or lemon in a glaze.
What if Your Ham Turns Out Salty Anyway?
Say you didn't follow those steps above — or, maybe you did, but you're still finding the flavor of the ham to be dominated by saltiness. All is not lost! Your meal can still be salvaged.
Try these tactics to make the salty taste less noticeable:
- Slice it very thin. That way, "the salt doesn't hit the palate so hard," Burke says.
- Make a glaze. Combine honey, brown sugar and lemon juice to make a glaze, Rose says. "The acid and sugar will significantly tone down the saltiness." You can top those thin slices of ham with this glaze.
- Add dairy. Serve the ham with dairy, Burke suggests. You can opt for cheese, sour cream, yogurt or cottage cheese — just make sure your dairy of choice is low in sodium!
- Top with applesauce. This is "very ham-friendly," Burke says. And applesauce makes everything edible, Burke says. "Actually, most any fruit compote or sauce will help mask a ham's salty taste and complement its flavor," he says.
- Add turkey. If you know you often find ham too salty, plan ahead, and cook a turkey as well. Then, "serve alternating slices of ham and turkey," Burke says.
- Be strategic with sides: Try serving it with bread, Matijevich suggests. Or, opt for other low-salt side dishes that'll balance out the salt, he says.