Published April 1, 2005. From Cook's Illustrated.
Mail-order hams are conveniently delivered to your doorstep. But which purveyors deliver the best flavor, value, and customer service?
Serving ham at holidays or for a large gathering is a long-standing tradition: Before refrigeration, hogs were slaughtered in the fall, and the curing took six to seven months, making ham an obvious choice especially for an early spring celebration.
Like all pork cuts, however, ham has changed dramatically over the years. Reflecting modern preferences for leaner pigs, hams today are as much as 57 percent leaner than those of 20 years ago (per the National Pork Board). Further, hams come from one of the leanest parts of the pig: the leg. Given less flavor from fat, the flavors added by curing and smoking—which differ substantially among brands—are important to consider when choosing a ham. Enter mail-order hams, which differ from supermarket hams because of unique brining and/or smoking treatments.
There are three types of ham: fresh, country, and city. A fresh ham is simply fresh pork cut from the leg. Most people think of ham as a form of cured pork-—but then you're really talking about a country or a city ham. Country hams are dry-cured (salt and seasonings are rubbed on the ham), smoked, and then hung and aged for as long as a year. They are sold uncooked and require substantial soaking, simmering, and baking before serving. City hams are wet-cured (soaked in brine). They're sold precooked, either bone-in or boned. To make the bone-in variety easy to serve, many are sold "spiral-sliced." To spiral-slice a ham, manufacturers use a special cutting machine that makes continuous, thin slices down to the bone while the ham is revolving.
To keep our samples comparable, we ordered six spiral-cut, city-style, half-hams for our tasting. We didn't add special glazes, and we warmed the hams in a shallow baking pan, fat side up, in a 325-degree oven for approximately 10 minutes per pound.
We gathered 20 tasters and almost 50 pounds of ham and then rated each company's customer service as well as its ham on the following criteria:
We uncovered two surprises. First, two of our most expensive hams earned only qualified recommendations. One delivered a flavor that our tasters who prefer hams with mild smoke and a discernable sweetness raved about, but the company missed two promised delivery dates. The second ham, despite being well packaged and chilled when it arrived, had a vinegary, acidic flavor, creating speculation that it had gone sour. To give it a fair test, we ordered a second ham, which arrived without the sourness and with a complex, full-seasoned flavor that our tasters enjoyed.
Our second surprise was the similarity in packaging, taste, and appearance of two of the hams. (We could not confirm whether the hams came from the same source; representatives from each company would not comment on the topic when we inquired.) Both hams came with little plastic disks covering the end of the bone, looked very similar, and received comparable taste ratings--the favorite of those who like meaty, smoky hams. One ham, however, was cheaper by more than $2 per pound, making it our top choice.