How to Choose a Ham

So you're serving ham, but what kind? It can be confusing, considering the number of options, from old-timey, expensive, and artisanal to cheap, slick, and celebrity endorsed. Here are five versions to consider, with what's good (and not so good) about each.

COUNTRY
The original traditional Southern ham, country hams are naturally cured using salt and brown sugar (nitrates are rare, but check with the maker), hung up to age over a process of months, and smoked over hickory, usually. They're technically raw, but they don't need to be refrigerated, sort of like prosciutto. They're typically made by small producers in the Southeastern U.S. who have been curing hams for generations.

Typical specimens: Broadbent’s Grand Champion Country Ham (Kentucky); Smithfield Country Ham (Virginia; not to be confused with hams from Smithfield Foods, see "Spiral" below); Tripp Whole Country Ham (Tennessee).

How it tastes: Intensely salty, “hammy” flavor; great with red-eye gravy; if your cholesterol count is below 240 or you don't mind a little artery plaque, hunks of deep-fried ham skin make unbelievably delicious chicharrones.

Cons: Unless you simply cut off a hunk and fry it country-style, you'll have to bake the ham in a roasting pan with plenty of liquid. But first you'll have to soak it for up to 48 hours with frequent changes of water, scrubbing away surface mold (which can seem weird for first-timers). Also, they're expensive: A 15-pound ham can run you $100, plus shipping.

Ham-snob score: 10 out of 10.

TRADITIONAL SMOKEHOUSE
Quick-cured in brine that contains nitrates, smoked (like most country hams, over hickory, usually), and delivered fully cooked. Available either bone-in (for purists and/or compulsive gnawers) or boneless for easy slicing. Note: Some makers of country hams also offer smokehouse versions.

Typical specimens: Newsom’s Gourmet BBQ "Preacher" Ham; Niman Ranch Bone-In Half Cured Ham.

How it tastes: Milder and less salty than country ham, smoky, and less sticky-sweet than elaborately glazed spiral hams.

Cons: Less au naturel than country ham, and just about as expensive. You can end up paying over $100 (plus shipping) for a 15-pounder; others cost $80 (plus shipping) for 8 pounds.

Ham-snob score: 8 out of 10 for bone-in; 7 out of 10 for boneless.

PETITE
A tiny (2 pound), boneless, nuggetlike version of the fully cooked smokehouse ham, made from a portion of the leg (either the knuckle—the piece closest to the shank—or a vertical section of the leg). Good for a small group; warms up quickly.

Typical specimens: Edwards Petite Virginia Ham; Fra’ Mani Little Ham.

How it tastes: See "Traditional Smokehouse."

Cons: Expensive—a three-pound ham can cost $40 before shipping. Tragic lack of post-Christmas ham sandwiches.

Ham-snob score: 6 out of 10.

SPIRAL
The most common ham in America, widely available at grocery and big-box stores. It's injected with brine to speed up curing, contains nitrates, and comes already cooked (and often with a HFCS-viscous topping provided, as in Smithfield Foods' Paula Deen–branded Crunchy Glaze) and sometimes frozen. A spiral ham's continuous helix cut makes it the easiest ham to serve, no knives necessary—potentially important for family get-togethers.

Typical specimens: HoneyBaked Whole Ham; Smithfield Foods Spiral Sliced Ham (not to be confused with Smithfield Country Ham, see above).

How it tastes: Salty and very sweet (thanks to the glaze), with a noticeably processed texture.

Cons: Questionable celebrity tie-ins (O.J. Simpson was an investor in HoneyBaked; Paula Deen endorses Smithfield); Smithfield has been sued for animal cruelty; spiral hams are highly dangerous when frozen (see: Paula Deen Ham Face). Not as cheap as you'd think: A 14-pound HoneyBaked costs just over $110, as much as a Traditional Smokehouse ham.

Ham-snob score: 3 out of 10.

CANNED
Like Spam only larger, and available at Walmart and sketchy corner liquor stores. This is the go-to meat of survivalists, and the sucking sound when it leaves the can is unforgettable.

Typical specimen: Dubuque Royal Buffet Lean Ham.

How it tastes: Superprocessed flavor beneath its salty, aspiclike jelly.

Cons: Starchy binders to make it cohere; overall kind of cat-food-y, only saltier.

Ham-snob score: Seriously?

Image sources: Header by Flickr member sk8geek under Creative Commons. Others: broadbenthams.com, Flickr member jules:stonesoup under Creative Commons, framani.com, Shutterstock, walmart.com

This story was originally published in December 2011.

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.