Thursday, December 13, 2012

What exactly is a Christmas ham and what's the best way to cook it?

Wet sloppy nightmare or artisan luxury bliss. If you plan to buy a Christmas ham this year here's a few pointers

Firstly what exactly is a ham?
A ham is hind leg of a pig from the femur to the hock. The word gammon derives from the Old Northern French word jambe for hind-leg, and gammon may also be used to refer to a ham or bacon. The depth of meat to the bone is greatest at the top of the hind limb; cutting this piece away from the bone and curing it separately does the job thoroughly and easily. This cut is the original and to this extent authentic form of gammon, though the name is often applied to any round ham steak. Gammon is usually smoked.

What is a free range ham?
Organic ham implies that the pigs are reared in a free range way but there are also many free range producers who don’t feed organic feed and therefore just sell “Free range” pork. New guidelines have been drawn up between the Irish free range producers pig group and Bord Bia and a mark will soon be available to consumers. The prices for free range will generally be higher but believe me, it does taste more flavoursome.

So you’re out rushing around for your Christmas food shop. Why is it important to look at where the ham is from?
Finely sliced ham
Imported European hams have more water and nitrite content allowed. Dutch processors can put up to 17% brine into their meat but only about 10% is allowable here. So an imported ham or packet of rashers that cook down to half their size mightn’t be worth the cheaper price on the supermarket shelf. In the USA a new study in the US found 69 percent of raw pork samples tested positive for yersina a lesser known but serious foodborne pathogen. Countries with less strict food regimes than ours are not worth buying cheap meat from.  

What goes into a ham?
Wet-cured bacon is prepared by immersing sides of bacon in brine or by injecting brine into the meat. It’s popular with manufacturers as it’s a faster and cheaper way to cure, but it has downsides for flavour. The final product is allowed to have up to 10% brine by weight, leading to shrinking on the pan. When you see a white liquid come from your rashers, that’s the brine and is a sign they have been wet cured.

You should be able see the grain of the muscle 
By contrast, dry-cured bacon is rubbed with a mixture of salt and sugar in various proportions and they are given time to cure the meat, taking about 7 days. Some producers will say there really is no such thing as nitrate free ham has pork can only be cured with nitrate. (Some use dried celery extract which has high concentrations of nitrate).  It’s a slower and more labour intensive process but it results in a drier finish and fuller, more pronounced flavour. This is the way meat was cured prior to it becoming an industrial process. You’ll benefit not just from a much better taste, but because there will be less shrinkage during cooking and it is easier to get a nice crisp result.

What’s the best way to cook it?
Choose the right sized ham e.g. a 4kg fillet of ham will feed 10 people and allows a little extra if your family like to help themselves to more on Christmas night. Never!!

Cook the ham on Christmas eve – it takes the pressure off the next day

Weigh the ham and put in a pot with half water and pure apple juice if you have it or a bay leaf, bouquet garni, orange peel or cider

Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes per pound. Some people change this water or soak the ham then fully roast it. If its dry cured it doesn’t need soaking.

Honey and spice glazed ham
Next day, remove skin and score the meat crossways with a sharp knife. Apply your preferred glaze. Honey, mixed spices with cinnamon and cardamon is one of my favourites. A lot of people will put cloves in the ham, a jerk or Caribbean glaze is gorgeous but seriously hot.
You can warm the ham before putting on the glaze. Apply the glaze and put it back in the oven for another 20/30 minutes. (This can all be done while your turkey is resting.)

Do not throw the cooking water out. It can be used to keep the ham moist when roasting in the oven. 

All important - what price should you pay?

Lidl have hams from 4.99 a kilo to 7.99 a kilo a gammon and a loin, Irish produced
Dunnes stores cooked ham 4 kilos Bord Bia 50 euro (12.50 a kilo)
Dunnes Stores Dry cured Irish gammon joint 1.9 kilos 19.99 euro

Free range/small producers - outdoor reared dry cure hams and organic dry cure hams, both boneless.

Their Outdoor Reared hams are €9 per kg and the organic are €12.99 per Kg.
Can courier direct to your door, final courier delivery day for Christmas is Dec 22nd and courier is free for orders over €100, below that it's €10.. (I so love that name) – dry cured 13lb (nearly 6 kilos) boneless ham 45 euro. Whole ham on the bone 40 euroBottom of Form

www.Jack award winning Kanturk butcher 4 kilos free range boned –
34 euro  €14.50 per kg, free-range, gmo free, natural brine cure.  Delivered to your door!

Here's a link to a radio piece I did with Pat Kenny this week on ham (its an hour and 6 mins into the show) and whatever you do, eat plenty of ham this Christmas. 


  1. Hi Suzanne, We have probably got the oldest commercial herd of free range outdoor pigs in Ireland (1997 to date) & we process our own meat under the Caherbeg Free Range label. However please don't soak and/or boil our cured meats because they are low salt so there's no need. Just roast them. Come and see us whenever you are in West Cork. With our second brand, Rosscarbery Recipes, we use locally produced Irish pork, but the ham is cured the same way.

  2. Hi Suzanne,

    Happy New Year! Can you believe it am only catching up on reading now!

    Thanks so much for the mention! We had the busiest Christmas ham season ever this year.

    Thank you for the support. Hope 2013 is good to you and your family.


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