Around the holidays, butchers’ cases contain a variety of hams, some pricey and some inexpensive. Before choosing a ham for your table, find out how much and what type of cooking it needs -- or if it needs cooking at all. Learn to “read” hams and ask questions to avoid ending up with a raw, undercooked ham or a dry, overcooked ham.
Read the package. The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires producers label cooked hams as “fully cooked” or “ready-to-eat.” Fresh hams must bear an instruction to “cook thoroughly” as part of their labeling. Look for canned or processing facility-packaged hams if you need a ready-to-eat cooked ham.
Learn the language of hams. Cured and aged hams may require little more than reheating because they have been injected or stored in preservatives such as salt or brine and may be eaten without cooking if they are marked ready-to-eat on packages with USDA seals. Ask your butcher if he smokes meats and what methods are used; hams hung in large rooms where temperatures up to 225 degrees Fahrenheit or in charcoal smokers may only require reheating.
Ask your butcher for guidance in choosing a ham and follow her suggestions for cooking or reheating hams. She may recommend reheating canned, spiral-cut or fully cooked whole or half leg hams, but long, slow cooking or braising for fresh bone-in shank and butt portions. Ask questions, particularly if you do not understand the cooking directions printed on the label.
Examine the color of the meat. Look for pale meat in fresh hams and pink to dark pink meat in wet or dry-cured hams. Smoked hams are darkest of all: a deep, ruddy pink. The darker the color of the ham, the more likely it has been smoked or aged, two methods that produce hams that need no cooking.
Inspect the surface of the ham. Fully cooked hams in cans or factory wrappers require little trimming but fresh hams may be covered with white fat. Smoking and dry curing dries and darkens the surface of the fat that wraps the outside of hams, signaling that the ham may be fully cooked.
USDA regulations require that packaging contain cooking or heating instructions as well as whether it is fully cooked or ready to eat or if you must cook it before eating it.
Never purchase meats without required information on packaging.