It's the Supermarket Shuffle, the dance performed in the grocery store before purchasing ham for one of the two primary sit-down ham meals a year in the South: Christmas and Easter.

The customer stands on one foot and then the other and tries to decide what a ham is and what kind to buy.

There are a dizzying number of names for hams, and sometimes the names overlap so much that shoppers close their eyes and grab whatever is handiest.

Others buy the most or least expensive depending on their pocketbook.

Why ham? Ham has been eaten in the spring ever since pagan times because meat slaughtered in the fall had been cured six months and was ready to eat.

So what is what when it comes to hams?

Hams come from both the hind leg and shoulder of the hog, but technically "ham" refers to only to the hind leg meat. Although they vary in bone, meat and fat content, both are cooked the same way, according to their size.

Hind leg

Whole ham legs range in weight from 15 to 25 pounds and can feed 20-plus people. They are usually sold in halves or portions thereof.

The upper part is the "butt end half " and includes the meaty center ham slice, considered the most desirable meat. "Butt end portion" does not include the center slice.

The "shank end half" is the lower cut. It has more bone, less meat and is cheaper. It also includes a center cut. "Shank end portion" does not.


"Picnic ham" is from the lower part of the shoulder. (To make matters more confusing, the top part of the shoulder is called a "butt.") Picnic hams range in size from 8-12 pounds. While less costly, they are fattier and not as attractive as ham from the hind leg.


Spiral-cut means the ham has been presliced around the bone with a machine. They typically come with a commercial glaze and are more prone to drying out when reheating, especially if you want to do your own glaze.

Canned ham

All canned hams are boneless, but may be "composites" -- made from pieces of ham -- or from a whole boneless ham. Some canned hams need to be refrigerated, some can be kept on the shelf according to package directions.

Fully cooked ham. Also seen as "Ready to Eat" or "Heat and Serve." Can be eaten without any more cooking, although it is frequently baked further to heat through and then glazed. When reheating and glazing, keep the internal temperature no more than 140 degrees for a moist, juicy ham.

Partially cooked ham. I rarely see this type of ham for sale. It must be cooked thoroughly. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends an internal temperature of 160 degrees.

Fresh ham. It is uncooked, uncured ham more commonly called pork leg than ham to avoid confusion.

Cured ham. There are two main types.

--"City" is wet-cured ham, the ones most commonly found in the grocery store. Sodium nitrates, nitrites, salt and sugar are combined with water to form a brine, sometimes called a curing solution. This is injected or pumped evenly into the ham before cooking. It may be smoked or not, or injected with a liquid smoke solution.

--"Country" is a dry-cured ham rubbed with various salts, sugars and other ingredients and aged six months or longer. It is usually but not always hung to dry and smoked. They do not require further cooking to be edible, and can be treated like the Italian prosciutto or Spanish Serrano ham. But in the old-fashioned way, some people choose to "reconstitute" it through an arduous process of soaking (to reduce the salt) and boiling or baking. The truth is, country ham of this type is too salty and dry for most palates. It is usually sliced thinly, better for appetizers and seasoning sides than as the centerpiece of a meal.

Some country hams may be sold as cooked, more closely resembling a grocery store ham. It is still salty, an acquired taste, and needs refrigeration.

Hams come whatever way you want them -- boned, pressed, cooked, cured, with a long shank, without, half a ham, on an on. But not all of them can be found at one store. Stores tend to cater to their clientele, so determine price point and shop accordingly.

--Want generous slices, the center cut and don't mind the expense? Try the butt end or the shank end half of a ham.

--Want some majesty at the table, ease of slicing, enough to feed the family plus plenty of leftovers? Get a semi-boneless, which means the ham has an exposed boneless section that is easy to carve. The remaining bone-in portion is good for leftovers, sandwiches and soup.

--Like to make ham soup? Go for bone-in.

--Want extra-easy slicing? Buy boneless.

--Want a boneless small roast? Buy a boned picnic ham.

--Loved your grandmother's salty ham but don't want to cook it? Consider buying a pre-cooked country ham.

--Want the most expensive ham money can buy, the "experience" of cooking a cured ham, have infinite patience and lots of time? Plus a crowd of, say 50, coming to dinner? Buy a whole country ham, and spend 24-36 hours soaking it, all day cooking it, and prepare for people who don't understand it and Southerners in rapture.

Water content affects the taste and texture of ham. The more the water, the spongier the meat will feel.

--When a ham is labeled just "ham," no water has been added, and must have at least 20.5 percent of weight from protein.

--"Ham with Natural Juices" has had some water added and is a minimum of 18.5 percent protein by weight.

--"Ham, Water Added" is least 17 percent protein by weight and contains up to 10 percent added solution.

--"Ham and Water Product" can have any amount of added water, which must be listed on the label. It is usually sold for sandwich meat and think slicing and shaving.

--For boneless ham, figure 1/4 to 1/3 pound per person.

--For bone-in ham, 1/3 to 1/2 pound per person.

Per 1 ounce of spiral sliced cured ham with natural juices:

--178 calories

--1g total fat; 3.1g saturated

--253mg sodium

--For more Easter-inspired recipes and ham basics, visit

--For a ham glossary, timetable for cooking and more, visit

I adapted this from a National Pork Board recipe and am very happy with it.

I prefer a bone-in ham or picnic ham with natural juices. Any pale-colored jam goes well on ham and adds flavor. There are many juices and nectars around, and they add flavor and moistness to the ham as well as keep the juices from burning as the ham cooks. I switch between peach, pineapple, mango, apricot and yes, even Coca Cola for cooking my ham, depending on my mood. I've even known people who soaked and cooked their ham in sweet tea. Ham's saltiness laps up sweet liquids.


4- to 8-pound cooked ham

1 to 2 cups peach, pineapple, mango or apricot juice, or Coca-Cola

1 1/2 to 2 cups jam such as peach, pineapple, mango or apricot

1 cup brown sugar, divided use

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger (optional)

1 cup roughly chopped fresh, frozen or jarred peaches or other fruit above


Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Make sure the rack is low enough that the ham will not hit the top of the oven while it is cooking.

Bring ham to room temperature. Rinse the ham and pat dry. Leave the skin and fat on -- it will flavor the ham and keep it moist. Score the skin in a criss-cross pattern using a sharp knife.

Move the ham to a pan larger than the ham by a few inches with 3- or 4-inch high sides, such as a paella pan or oven-proof skillet (wrap the handle with foil if not sure).

Add the juice or liquid and enough water to come about 3/4 inch up the sides of the ham. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Roast approximately 15 minutes a pound, approximately 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the ham reaches the internal temperature of 100 degrees.

Meanwhile, mix together the jam, 1/2 cup of the brown sugar and ginger in a pan, and melt together until thick and glossy.

When the ham is heated to 100 degrees, remove the ham from the oven and turn the oven up to 425 degrees. Pat the remaining brown sugar over the top of the scored skin. Pour 1/4 of the glossy syrup into a container and brush it all over the ham. Add enough remaining juice or water to the ham liquid until it comes 1/4 inch up the ham. Move the pan carefully to the now-hot oven. Bake 15-20 minutes until the glaze is a rich brown and the liquid in the pan is bubbly. The ham reaches about 140 degrees internally and is heated throughout. Remove ham to a board to rest. Carefully pour the juices remaining in the pan into the pan with the remaining glaze. Bring to a boil, stirring, and boil gently until you have a lovely shiny slightly thick sauce and serve with the ham. Sprinkle the chopped fruit on top of the ham or slice and surround.