Ham It Up! Best Holiday Hams For A Jolly Christmas
Ham often plays second fiddle on Christmas, edged out by the same old roast or Thanksgiving Turkey, Part II. But a craggy ham with a luscious glaze is guaranteed to please a crowd — and takes only about 15 minutes to prep. Seriously.
ByTory L. Davis
Ham doesn’t get a lot of fanfare during the holidays, sort of like a steady, reliable boyfriend who always shows up on time: Everyone likes him, he certainly delivers, but it can be easy to be distracted by something shiny. The trusty ham doesn’t seem as thrilling as a crown roast in all its frilly white caps … until we discover that the roast actually tastes kind of boring, and remember the slightly salty, porky goodness that tastes like going home. Turns out we loved ham most all along.
And while it may seem a little strange to celebrate the birthday of a Jewish prophet with a decidedly unkosher main dish, who can say no to ham for Christmas dinner given how simple and unfussy it is to prepare? Just unwrap it, score a festive diamond pattern, slather on a spicy glaze (which is rarely more than a handful of ingredients from the cupboard), then pop it in the oven to heat through and caramelize the exterior. Let it rest in the roasting pan, then put it on your prettiest platter and voila! A holiday dinner masterpiece for just a few moments of work.
Ham also has the benefit of being a crowd-pleaser: Both picky kids and snooty foodies are happy to take another slice. Plus a big ham (even a fancy one) feeds a crowd without breaking the bank, and leftovers can be enjoyed in myriad ways: in a savory egg sandwich in the morning, stirred into macaroni and cheese, sliced and added to a cozy bean soup, or slivered and added to congee (Chinese rice porridge) with the bone for a bowl of true winter comfort.
And for some cultures, pork is de rigueur for the holidays: Cubans celebrate with lechón, a glorious feast prepared by digging a hole in the ground, filling it with hot coals and stones, then burying an entire pig for a gentle roast, to be shared with abuelitas and niños alike. In the Philippines, lechón also entails a whole hog, but this one is stuffed with lemongrass, garlic, salt, and leeks, rubbed with coconut milk and soy sauce, and then slowly spit-roasted over charcoal until the skin becomes deliciously lacquered and crisp.
So really, there are only a few questions to be answered as you prepare a holiday feast so simple you might even get to enjoy your own party.
Grocery Store vs. Pasture-Raised, Heritage Pork
Since the 1950s, as American tastes have shifted and vegetable oils largely replaced lard for cooking, farmers began breeding pigs to have significantly less fat; today’s industrial pigs are 50% leaner. And while “the other white meat” (as the ads used to say) may be good for the national waistline, less fat also means a milder flavor without as much complexity or depth. The curing process helps though, as does the cut: ham comes from the back leg, a tender, juicy part of the pig.
However, America is blessed with an impressive history of family farms that raised amazing pigs: Over a hundred years ago, Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire had Virginia ham (specifically Smithfield ham, from pigs raised on local peanuts) as number one on its list of world-class hams. That tradition has endured and is finally making a comeback. Some bold farmers are reviving heritage breeds raised outdoors, so the pigs forage for part of their diets, creating toothsome, marbled meat (called “pastured” pork). If you’re willing to spend a little more and order quickly, a glorious bone-in ham can be on your holiday table this year. The meat on these ham bones is deeper and more mysterious, with real umami oomph. These hams have to be boiled for a bit first to draw out some of the salt (save that liquid for bean soup the next day!), but it’s a small effort compared to the flavor payoff that awaits.
But the best news is that what the mainstream pork industry has forgotten can — not entirely, but decently — be made up for with an especially delicious ham glaze.
To Pineapple Or Not To Pineapple… That Is The Question
One of the delightful things about preparing a Christmas ham is that, like a little black dress, you can dress it up or down but it’s going to be a smash either way. If you long to honor your grandmother in all her 1950s glory with a luau-inspired showstopper, guests will ooh and ahh at this holiday classic — and even those who raise an eyebrow at maraschino cherries will be spotted later scarfing a few down.
Otherwise, you can dust off your finest brandy, grab your best jar of German whole grain mustard, squirt some sriracha, grind whole cloves and star anise yourself, and ensure that the holiday ham will be the darling of your Christmas table.
And if you’re in a holiday rush, a simple mustard glaze from items already on your shelf will still deliver excellent results: some brown sugar or maple syrup, a little apple cider vinegar, a can or two of cola or Dr. Pepper (seriously), and a dollop of dijon mustard all add up to one delicious Christmas meal. It’s hard to go wrong with a glaze.
Scoring Big, Or: Should I Leave All That Fat On Top?
A good ham comes with a healthy layer of fat on top, called the “fat cap.” Don’t cut it off! The fat protects the meat underneath from the hot blast of the oven and helps keep it from drying out. Most ham recipes call for “scoring” the top, which means to take a sharp knife and cut lines through the fat (though not so deep that you hit the meat below), generally to create a diamond pattern. Why do this? Well, in the oven the heat causes that fat cap to constrict dramatically; scoring it first means it’ll shrink into an attractive pattern instead of peeling off from one side in a frightening sort of way (trust me on this one).
The other benefit is that the valleys created between the scored fat ridges capture your glaze beautifully. The flavors sink in as the sweeteners caramelize (brown sugar and honey are classics), turning your Christmas ham a tempting golden brown while allowing a depth of flavor to emerge that balances out the porky salinity below.
Our Recipe Picks
Ready for some Christmas ham recipes? Yummly has all the holiday ham recipes a cook could dream of; here are a few easy recipes to get you started. Once you've picked out your recipe, check out these 10 Christmas Side Dishes For A Festive Feast to round out your holiday feast.