Around the holidays, butchers' cases and grocery stores overflow with ham options: spiral, smoked, cured, uncured and more. Most of the hams you can purchase are already cooked, according to The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
But not all of them.
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"You won't be able to tell if your ham is cooked just by looking at it," says Shawn Matijevich, lead chef for online culinary arts and food operations at the Institute of Culinary Education.
Fortunately, there are some clear cues that'll help you know if your ham is cooked (and just needs reheating) or if it needs to be fully cooked before eating. Understanding the difference will help you avoid eating a raw or undercooked ham — or an overcooked, dried-out one.
Reading the label on your ham's packaging is the only way you can know if it's cooked or not, Matijevich says. When a ham isn’t actually cooked, the label will clearly state that it requires cooking and provide cooking instructions, per the USDA.
Types of Hams
There are plenty of different types of ham that you can purchase. Here's a quick review of the most common options:
Cured and Aged Hams
Aged and cured hams have been brined or salted, Matijevich says. This is an old-school preservation method that dates back to times when reliable refrigeration wasn't an option.
"Salt prevents bad bacteria from spoiling the ham and the curing process dries it out to varying degrees," Matijevich says. Both options prevent mold and bacteria.
"Some forms of cured ham have no actual heat applied to them," Matijevich says. Aged and cured ham is still considered cooked, though. (For example, you might think of ceviche, which is "cooked" using high acid liquids, not heat.)
"These hams only need to be reheated," Matijevich says. That said, some of them — like country hams — can be very salty. "You may want to soak your cured ham before you cook it in order to reduce the saltiness," Matijevich says.
A cured ham will often have a rose or pink color, per the USDA.
An uncured ham may still be cooked. "The curing process is where the meat has salt and possibly sodium nitrate added to it," Matijevich says. Because many people avoid sodium nitrate and nitrites, some meat products are labeled uncured to show nitrates and nitrites weren't added, he adds.
"But many uncured hams are treated with celery or beet juice, and the label will say that it's undergone a natural curing process," Matijevich says. But actually, the process is the same, and takes advantage of the nitrates in these juices. "Instead, manufacturers are just using sea salt and naturally present nitrates to cure the meat."
A smoked ham may be fully cooked — or not. "Smoke can be added purely for flavor, or it can be used to preserve the ham," Matijevich says. Check the product label to find out if your smoked ham required additional cooking.
Fresh ham looks like raw meat and requires cooking, Matijevich says. In contrast, cooked, cured or smoked meats have a texture like lunchmeat. Fresh ham comes from an uncured leg of pork, per the USDA.
Signs You Need to Cook Your Ham Before Eating
Because looking at a ham itself won't reveal if it's cooked or not and eating raw meat is best avoided, there are several clear indicators on the packaging that should tell you when a ham needs to be cooked prior to being eaten:
- A "cook thoroughly" statement: If a ham could trick you into thinking it's cooked based on its appearance in the package, it must be labeled to clearly show it requires cooking, per the USDA.
- Cooking instructions: Plus, the label of an uncooked ham will include cooking instructions, says Chef Brandon Collins, mustard sommelier for Maille. Typically, the label will note you need to cook the ham thoroughly to a given temperature before eating.
- The word "fresh": Fresh ham is, by definition, uncooked. So if you see that on the packaging, know that you'll need to cook it before eating.
- Safe handling instructions: You can also expect a ham that needs to be cooked to have details on how to store, prepare and handle the ham on the label, per the USDA.
How to Tell if a Ham is Fully Cooked
You'll be able to identify a fully cooked ham by reading the label. In fact, the packaging — not the appearance of the meat — is the only way to know if a ham is fully cooked, Matijevich says.
A fully cooked ham won't have "cook thoroughly" on the packaging. Instead, it might say "precooked." Otherwise, the label on your ham should have reheating (no cooking) instructions, which would indicate that the meat is precooked.
If your ham is fully cooked — and in a vacuum-sealed package from a federally-inspected manufacturing plant — you can safely eat it cold, according to the USDA. That’s true for canned ham, too. But cooked ham that doesn’t meet those criteria — for instance, a ham that was cooked by your butcher, or wasn’t packed up at a federally-inspected plant — could have pathogens, and should be reheated before eating.
What’s the Best Option?
If you're looking for the easiest-to-prepare option, go for a fully cooked ham. "A raw ham needs a lot of cooking and will not have the same texture that most people are used to in a ham," Matijevich says.
Another option, and one Matijevich prefers, is a partially cooked ham. "This is like a middle ground where you still have some control over the juiciness and flavor without committing yourself to several days of preparation and cooking," he says.
Whatever type of ham you choose, read the package carefully to determine if your ham is fully cooked, partially cooked or not cooked at all.
The difference matters: If you're reheating a fully cooked ham, it needs to reach an internal temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit, but an uncooked ham needs to read 145 F, per the USDA.