The 11 Most Common Mistakes People Make Cooking a Ham - And How to Prevent Them
There’s no flavor more emblematic of the comforts of a homemade holiday meal than that of a baked ham, ideally cooked to glistening glazed perfection and served in warm, juicy slices. However, though turkey typically gets a reputation for the hardest protein to cook during the holidays, it can be just as hard to bake a whole ham that lives up to its dreamy expectations.
Ham, which is the hind leg of a pig that’s been cured with a mixture of salt, sugar, nitrates, and smoke, can be a tricky cut of meat to perfect. Due to its size and pre-cooked nature—the vast majority of store-bought hams have been cured and cooked in some way before heading home with you—it can be difficult to not overcook and dry out this touchy dish.
By following these tips and tricks, we’ll help you get on the path towards the ultimate whole ham that will fulfill all of your holiday fantasies with minimal kitchen-induced stress and anxiety.
Buying the Wrong Kind of Ham
Sadly, not all hams are created equal, and it’s important to pay attention to which kind of ham you select for your meal. In a nutshell, there are two main types of ham available to purchase: country hams and city hams (check out our full breakdown of both). For holiday dinner purposes, you’ll want a city ham, which are typically submerged in a saltwater mixture, pre-cooked, and ready to be transformed into an epic goldencbrown creation.
In addition to the type of ham, we’d also recommend putting thought into the quality of the meat you’re purchasing. For every delectable, high quality there are two bland options, so take the time and money to find one that’s worth being your holiday dinner headliner. Call your local butcher to order a great bone-in ham, or order one online.
Going Boneless—or Artificially Treated
While a bone-free ham might be tempting for its ease of slicing, getting a ham that’s bone-in or only partially deboned will help with not only the flavor and moistness of your ham in the long run, but also your ease of cooking. The bone will help guide your thermometer to the proper spot while testing the meat’s temperature, and as a bonus can be used to lend extra depth of flavor to soups and stews long after the last of your ham has been gobbled up.
You’ll also want to keep an eye out for hams that have been artificially plumped. While high-quality hams have been submerged in a curing saltwater solution, cheaper hams can be injected with salt water and other artificial flavors in order to save time and money. Make sure to check the label to guarantee the only ingredient listed is “ham,” which rules out any artificial meddling.
Not Lining Your Pan
For the benefit of your own post-meal clean up, be sure to line your ham pan with a heavy-duty foil before baking. Skipping this step will all but guarantee your glaze to harden into a seemingly impenetrable shell on your pan, which will require some major elbow grease to get rid of.
Cooking It Cold
For the best end result possible, you don’t want to shock your ham by transferring it straight from the fridge into the oven, which can be a jarring temperature change. Instead, bring the ham to room temperature before baking, ensuring all of the meat will be evenly cooked once it heads into the oven. This can be done by setting the pork on the counter for about an hour prior to cooking.
Drowning Your Ham
Though it might seem instinctual to add as much moisture to your ham as possible before and during the cooking process to ensure it won’t turn out dry, this can ultimately be a deterrent to the perfect ham. Rather than pre-bathing the ham, or basting it throughout the cooking process, add a half cup of stock, wine, or water to the bottom of the pan while it’s cooking, which will infuse moisture into the meat throughout the baking process. Make sure to cover the ham with foil while cooking to lock in some of that moisture, only removing it when you’re ready to move on to the glazing process.
Forgetting to Score the Skin
By scoring the skin of the ham—aka cutting slightly into the skin in a crisscross pattern across the entire surface—you allow both the fat to render out and the glaze to seep into the inner meat, rather than just the outer skin. While this step will add a little extra time to your cooking process, it’ll be more than worth it in the end.
Using That Glaze Packet
While using the packet of pre-made glaze that commonly comes with a spiral cut ham is tempting when you’re running short on time, taking a few minutes to create your own glaze is the easiest way to take your ham to the next level. We’d recommend a classic brown sugar glaze for the epitome of a sweet and savory experience.
Glazing Too Early
Once you’ve perfected your homemade glaze, you’ll probably be jumping at the prospect of smothering your ham in it and letting it bake to a glistening brown. However, jumping the gun on the glazing can result in a slightly burnt skin that misses the nuances of the sauce’s flavors. Brush on the glaze just 20-30 minutes before your ham is scheduled to be done to make sure you don’t overcook it.
Sticking to One Too-High Temperature
Hams are at their best when given the extra time to cook low, slow, and at an even temperature. While many recipes might call for a 375-degree or higher oven, by cooking the ham for longer at a lower temperature—between 300-325—the result will be a more flavorful cut of meat that isn’t dried out.
After this patient cooking process, once your glaze has been added we’d recommend cranking up the heat temporarily. This will help your glaze caramelize, creating that delectable outer shell. Once the glaze is on, turn your oven up to 450 degrees and watch your ham carefully, reducing the temperature once you see the glaze start to harden.
Not Measuring the Temperature Correctly
In order to properly test the temperature of your ham, you’ll want to get your meat thermometer close to the bone to ensure you’re getting a reading from one of the deepest points of the meat. While a ham is generally considered done when it reaches 145 degrees, make sure to remove it from the oven before it hits this final temperature. Since your ham will continue cooking slightly on the countertop, removing it from the oven at 135 or 140 degrees will guarantee your meat won’t end up overcooked and dry.
Not Letting It Rest
As with most meats, ham needs to have a proper nap before it can be enjoyed in its peak form. By letting your dinner’s main event rest for about 20 minutes, you’ll allow all of those internal juices to soak into the meat, resulting in a moister, more succulent experience. Trust us, it’s worth the wait.