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posted: 12/19/2012 10:14 AM

Lean and lovin it: Tips for selecting, cooking holiday ham

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• Editor's note: Don Mauer is taking some time off. This column originally appeared on Dec. 22, 2004.

Save the turkey for Thanksgiving, for me, ham means it's Christmas.

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For years I threw a family Christmas Eve party that included an annual backgammon tournament with an engraved trophy that the winner kept for a year and relinquished at the following year's party. The loser got a lump of coal.

After the tournament, we sat down to a big dinner at my long dining room table cobbled together with the formal table and a card table or two. No kids table here; we all ate together.

One of those early years I prepared Gourmet magazine's centerfold Christmas dinner, following it course-by-course, wine-by wine right down to a caramelized-sugar-topped, crystallized-ginger-garnished dessert. Yes, I was showing off, but every course brought choruses of "wows" sung louder than the previous. How could I resist?

Another year I roasted a whole ham from my butcher shop, with the fat cut into clove-studded diamonds and coated with a mixture of brown sugar, dry mustard and vinegar. The aroma drew people from the backgammon tournament into my kitchen wondering what smelled so good. Cousins who generally pass on pork helped themselves to seconds of the moist, flavorful slices.

I remember that ham because it was my first-ever, full-blown, bone-in, oven-roasted ham. Over the next 20 years I've prepared many hams and each one taught me something. Here's some of what I learned. • You can spend a lot on a butcher shop, or a mail-order, or a specialty store spiral-sliced ham, but in the end, a supermarket ham (some do come spiral-sliced) tastes just as good and costs a lot less.

How much less? I've seen specialty hams at $6 to $8 per pound, when supermarket hams cost half that. After New Year's I've found hams at the supermarket going for as little as 99 cents to $1.19 per pound.

• When it comes to selecting a ham, I always look at the cut side to find the best. I'm looking for some fat marbling through the lean pink meat. I know that when I heat that ham, most of that fat will melt away, leaving me with a leaner, yet moist and flavorful ham. • I've also learned that those packets of glaze riding along with those hams do give off great aromas when used according to their directions, but the added time at a higher temperature creates a drier ham with little flavor boost. I usually throw the packets away.

• Since hams have been precooked, I've found they take a short oven time at a lower-than-expected oven temperature. In a preheated 325-degree oven, I expect an 8-pound ham will be done (140 degrees internal temperature) in just more than an hour. Add 30 minutes for a 12-pound ham.

• While my ham roasts, I resist the urge to open the oven door and baste the ham. Opening the oven door usually causes fluctuations in temperature that affect the ham's final outcome.

• My final lesson: Studding a ham with cloves doesn't add much flavor, but does give a decorative appearance to the ham as it arrives on the holiday table for slicing.

Happy holidays!

Try this recipe: Here's a dandy sauce that goes great with ham.

• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at don@theleanwizard.com.

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