Pre-cooked spiral cut hams — also known as “city hams” — were always my favourite part of Easter. Since there is no danger of undercooking, we’re free to focus flavour. Heating and serving may seem simple enough, but you can overdo it in the oven. This leads to a dry, chewy pork product, and nobody wants that. Easter may be over – but how can you make your pre-cooked ham taste better?
Luckily, there are a few strategies you can execute to make sure your salty hunk of meat is succulent and tender. Swap out the packet of cloying glaze for something homemade, and you have a veritable masterpiece of pork.
Strategy #1: Embrace bones and fat
City hams come either with or without a bone and, though boneless hams are easier to slice, I’ve found that bone in just tastes better, and the folks at Serious Eats agree. As Kenji points out, this probably has less to do with the bone contributing flavour, and more to do with how boneless hams — which are shaped into creepily smooth and uniform loaves — are processed. Another great reason to get a bony ham? You can use that bone to make soup. Soup is good.
In addition to bones, I like to grab a ham with a bit of visible fat on it. Fat contributes moisture and flavour, so leave any fat cap on there, and score it lightly to help it render while you heat your meat.
Strategy #2: Go low and slow
Though I’ve seen recommended serving temperatures for ham go as high as 140℉, you’d better not let your precious pork baby get anywhere near that hot. A much cooler 50 degrees is plenty warm, and your ham is much less likely to dry out at that temperature. You can go as high as 55 without it getting dry, but I like to aim low in case someone gets forgetful or distracted. (That someone is me.)
If you’re using your oven, place the ham on a roasting rack — cut side down — set inside a pan. Add 1/2-3/4 of a cup of wine or stock to the pan (you don’t want the ham swimming in liquid) and throw some aromatics in there. A few whole cloves, some star anise, and cinnamon sticks are all good options. Cover the ham with foil and place in a 250-degree oven until it reaches an internal temperature of 38 degrees. (According to America’s Test Kitchen, this is the best time to apply your glaze, and I agree.) Using a leave-in probe thermometer is the easiest way to monitor this, but if you don’t have one, start checking the temperature with an instant read thermometer after the first 45 minutes. Brush on your glaze, and return the ham to the oven for another half hour or so, uncovered, until it reaches 50 edgrees. If you’re glaze isn’t as shiny as you want it, take a kitchen torch to it to make it crackle.
If you want to break free from the oven, you can also use your slow cooker or (gasp) sous vide. When using a Crockpot or something similar, your glaze can go on right at the beginning, as it’s much less likely to burn. Simply place your ham down in the pot, fanning out the slices, and pour you glaze all over it. Cook on low for 2 1/2-4 hours (depending on your slow cooker), basting it with glaze every hour or so, until your reach 50 degrees. I’m a big fan of Coca-Cola as a glaze, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Finally, there is my favourite meaty method: sous vide. Simply seal your ham in freezer bag or vacuum bag, and place it in a 120-degree water bath for at least four hours, but — according to the Food Lab — no more than eight. Remove it from the bath, glaze it up, and either hit it with a kitchen torch or pop it under the broiler to get it all caramelised and shiny.
Strategy #3: Upgrade your glaze
I’m sure there are some pre-packaged glazes out there that are fine, but I like to have a little more control over the outcome. There are a million different ways to glaze, but these are some of my favourite combos:
- Coca-Cola Glaze: 1 can of of Coca-Cola + 453.59g crushed pineapple (with juice) + 3/4 cup brown sugar
- Dave Lieberman’s Dijon Maple Glaze: 1/2 cup maple syrup + 1/2 cup brown sugar + 2 tablespoons whole grain Dijon mustard + 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon + 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Ina Garten’s Orange Marmalade Glaze: 6 minced garlic cloves + 8 1/2 ounces orange marmalade + 1/2 cup Dijon mustard + 1 cup light brown sugar + the zest of one orange and 1/4 cup of orange juice
If you are making your ham in a slow cooker, whisk all the glaze ingredients together, and apply them to your pork as described above. Otherwise combine all ingredients in a sauce pan, and heat until they begin to simmer. Cook for a few more minutes until you have a nice, thick sauce, then set aside until your ready to glaze it up.