While there are some renegades who go with duck, turkey or prime rib on Christmas, the traditional holiday meal usually centers around ham: A giant, spiralsliced hunk of ham with a glistening glaze.
Greg Combs, owner of the Pork Shop in Queen Creek, says his ham business really plumps up this time of year. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, he sells about 550 hams, compared to about 1,000 hams for the entire rest of the year.
You’ll see more hams at the supermarkets, too, crowding the meat counters and being hoisted into carts by their plastic netting.
The trick is getting a good ham. When you choose a ham, how do you know if it’s going to taste as good as it looks? And why are some hams $1.50 a pound while others are $5 a pound?
"A good portion of it is the amount of water that’s added," said Combs.
All hams have water added when the cure is injected, he said. The cure is needed so the ham won’t spoil when it’s in the smoker. But when hams are smoked, many commercial processors close the flue to keep the water from evaporating out.
"The argument is that it makes a moist, tender product," Combs said, but he warns that consumers are paying for the added water. The Pork Shop leaves the flue open, so all the water is smoked out.
"The ham with moisture in it is a little more rubbery," he said. "If you throw it in the skillet, it’s going to shrink more. Our hams hardly shrink at all."
He said the hams with the water smoked out also have a more intense flavor, and will stay moist if cooked properly. He recommends baking at 10 minutes per pound at 350 degrees if you’re just heating it and glazing it.
The exact amount of water that you’re buying can vary, said Craig Kurz, CEO of Holland, Ohio-based HoneyBaked Hams. He said you’ll see three kinds of labels on hams in the grocery store:
• Ham, with no other qualifiers. This means you’re paying, per pound, for 100 percent meat.
• Ham labeled "with natural juices." This means you’re paying for ham with up to 10 percent water weight.
• Ham labeled "with water added." This means you’re paying for ham with more than 10 percent water weight.
There are also formed hams, said Combs, which are not actually cuts of meat. Instead, he said, "They’re little bits and chunks of meat; they’re shredded and put back together." Then they’re molded into a ham-shaped form.
Of course, the original quality of the meat makes a difference, too.
HoneyBaked Hams use grain-fed pigs and a combination of human expertise and technology to find the perfect pH levels, internal fat content and marbling. The Pork Shop buys all-natural pork from Kansas that has no hormones, antibiotics or phosphates.
Kurz said the curing process contributes to the taste, too. "Commercial hams are generally cured one day or so," he said. "Ours are cured three to five times as long, which results in a more even distribution."
The baking and smoking process also affects flavor. HoneyBaked Ham uses a combination of hardwoods in its smoking process; The Pork Shop uses hickory. Some of the commercial hams use a liquid or vapor smoke.
"What the combination of longer smoke and bake time and hardwood chips leads to is a ham that has more tenderness and a fuller flavor, that has more of a bloom about it," Kurz said.
While a label won’t tell you much about a ham besides its water content, Craig Kurz, CEO of HoneyBaked Ham, said there are some things to look for when buying.
1. Check the exposed part for a bright and consistent pink color, as opposed to dull or splotchy colors, which indicate that the cure missed some spots.
2. Look for decent but not excessive marbling. You don’t want too lean a ham because it will be dry, but the more fat in the meat, the less the cure will take to it.
3. Inspect the fat content around the bone and on the surface to make sure there’s minimal fat. There should only be 1 /8 to 1 /4 inch of fat on the surface.
4. Take into account the freshness. HoneyBaked Hams have a shelf life in the refrigerator of six to eight days. At the Pork Shop, half hams or sliced hams will last about a week, but if you leave it whole, it will last about three weeks in the refrigerator. Many commercial hams will be vacuum-packed and have a "sell by" date of sometime in January. 5. Price is often an indicator of quality. As with many things in life, you get what you pay for.
• That said, HoneyBaked Hams sell locally (through Christmas) for $36.99 for a 7-pound bone-in, spiral-sliced, honey-glazed ham and cost $5 per pound above that. At the Pork Shop in Queen Creek, hand-crafted hams are $2.59 a pound for a whole bone-in ham (about 17 or 18 pounds) and $3.49 a pound for a half bone-in ham (about 12 pounds). Boneless hams are $3.69 for a whole ham and $4.29 for a half ham.