There’s good ham, great ham, and terrible ham out there. Here, a chef who hails from the “ham belt” tells you how to pick one out and prepare it best.
Pineapple-Tamarind Ham
Credit: Greg Dupree

For many families, the iconic spiral ham is as much a part of winter holiday parties as eggnog, mulled wine, and “Frosty the Snowman.” Ham can make a handsome addition to a dinner table—but as anyone who’s stuck a fork in a slab of it knows, it can also vary wildly in quality.

Kentucky-born Stephen Barber, executive chef of Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch in California’s Napa Valley, is a self-professed “ham snob.” He hails from a region of Kentucky that’s part of a string of states known as the “ham belt,” so he grew up eating country hams (which he now cures on his own). Country hams are very salty, often require soaking before cooking, andare distinct from the more well-known city hams, including spiral-cut hams. As Barber says, “I’m not against the pre-sliced, spiral-sliced ham. I think it’s really convenient; I think that there are some good ones out there.” But there are some hammy traps afoot at the market, so here’s what he’d watch out for—and how he’d prepare a city ham for the holidays.

Look for Ham-Only Labels

City hams you spy in the grocery store are typically cured by submerging the meat in salt water solution for days or weeks. Sometimes they’re smoked, and often they’re sold fully cooked. Often, however, cheap hams are injected with a salt solution (or other preservatives and flavorings), which is a salting shortcut. Watch out for that, says Barber. Ideally you want a ham with a label reading simply “ham.” Not “ham, water added” and definitely not “ham and water product.” (As this helpful primer from Serious Eats points out, the best of the hams will read “ham,” followed closely by “ham and natural juices.”)

Barber notes, “Some of these guys who make hams can pump [in] 20 percent of its weight in water, which is not what you want.”

Buy Bone-In

“Look for something that’s bone-in and cooked on the bone instead of the ones that are de-boned and re-shaped,” suggests Barber, referring to ham crammed into a tin or pounded into a round ball. “You wonder how something got that shape.” Bone-in hams—though they’re trickier to slice—tend to lend an unctuousness to the ham itself in taste tests. Barber likes to reserve the bone. “Making collard greens or black-eyed peas or anything else after that with that bone is pretty awesome.”

Get it to room temperature

Though the USDA might quibble with this, Barber likes to get the ham get to room temperature before throwing it in the oven. “A big piece of meat like that should definitely be tempered at room temperature before throwing it in so it cooks evenly.”

Make Your Own Glaze

A city ham will generally be pre-cooked, and spiral-cut hams often come with “some sort of packet that you mix together.” Barber tosses those, instead using a homemade reduction of Dr. Pepper, bourbon, and brown sugar “that make a great glaze” when painted on the ham over mustard. (He pointed me to this Alton Brown recipe, which gilds the lily with a gingersnap cookie coating.) Don’t forget to score your ham so fat renders out, he adds, and so it looks good.

So long as you read the label and take a little time to add your own touch to a store-bought ham, you should be in good shape. One ham goes a long way at winter parties, so it takes a burden off the host, too!

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.