Fresh Ham: Try the uncured kind this Easter if you're looking for something different

When I was a girl, my mom made turkey or ham every Easter. My sister, Louise, loved turkey, my dad preferred ham, and I was satisfied with either.

A few weeks before Easter when I was about 12, my father declared, "I'm tired of ham and turkey. This Easter we're going to have fresh ham."

His announcement wasn't such a shock to my mom as it was to me.

Fresh ham? We always had ham and I assumed it was fresh. My dad went on to explain the process of curing a ham and the difference between that and fresh. I guess he thought I wasn't getting it, so he summed it up by saying, fresh ham is just like a pork roast but better because it has a big bone and bones always make the meat taste better.

Where can you buy a fresh ham?

Just about any market that sells meat will have it, but in most cases you must order in advance.

I bought my ham at the Brentwood Giant Eagle, 600 Towne Square Way (412-831-1480), but all the Giant Eagles can get them.

"It takes about two days for the ham to arrive at the store after the order is placed," said meat cutter Rege Schranz. He explained that, according to, a fresh ham will keep in the refrigerator for three to four days (at 40 degrees or below) and may be frozen up to six months.

"We don't get a lot of people asking for a fresh ham," he said. "The ones who do are 50 and older. Young people have no idea what a fresh ham is -- they're only familiar with cured hams."

He said that while most fresh hams nowadays are sold with most of the rind or skin trimmed off, that "sure makes great gravy."

I guess I shouldn't have removed the small patch of rind from my ham! My dad was right again -- fat adds to the flavor.

John McGinnis, owner of John McGinnis & Co. on Route 88 in Castle Shannon (412-344-1450), also said he can fill an order for a whole or half fresh ham in two days. "It seems people of German descent order fresh hams more than any other ethnic group," he said, noting, "Fresh ham has a character all its own. It's sweeter than other meats."

He also described fresh ham as a "bargain" at about $2.49 a pound untrimmed and about $2.99 trimmed.

Ricky McCandless of McGinnis Sisters Specialty Foods, 3825 Saw Mill Run Blvd. in Brentwood (412-882-6400), said they can provide fresh hams in about three days for $2.49 bone-in and $3.49 boneless. "We don't often get requests for fresh ham except for Christmas and Easter."

Other markets that offer fresh hams include:

Bruno's Butcher Shop, 922 Main St., Penn Hills, 412-781-3642.

Joe's Butcher Shop, 502 Broadway, Pitcairn, 412-372-5599.

Lambert's Market, 1902 Grandview Ave., McKeesport, 412-644-7371.

Market Fresh Meat, 5 Foster Ave., Crafton, 412-921-5554.

I even found fresh ham at Whole Foods in East Liberty (412-441-7960), where it's always available during the holidays and can be ordered at other times (allow a week or two for delivery).

"Many people don't know what a fresh ham is," says the store's John Figlar. "They'll order one and when they come in to pick it up they look at it and often say, 'I didn't order that.'"

The store sells organic boneless ones for $4.99 a pound. Guess what I'm trying for Easter?

-- Arlene Burnett

On Easter morning my dad called me into the kitchen to show me his prized fresh ham. "Here's what you do with it," he said. "Take a knife and make deep slits all over the pork. Get some garlic and push those pieces into the pork. Rub the pork with a little bit of olive oil then add some salt and pepper. And always leave most of the fat on because that's what gives it flavor."

To him the power of garlic was not limited to the kitchen. When my sister, Louise, came down with a sore throat and cough, my dad fried some garlic, placed it in a handkerchief and wrapped it around her throat, saying, "That will make it better." I can't remember if it cured her, but I was glad I wasn't the one with garlic hanging around my neck.

This story came to mind recently while I was preparing my grocery list for this year's Easter dinner. I wanted to make something different, and then I remembered that special Easter Sunday when my mom and dad cooked a fresh ham.

It's simply the upper hind leg of the pig, not processed or "cured" using salt or brine and often smoke as most hams are. Fresh ham tastes like a really moist pork tenderloin.

As much as I loved our fresh ham with garlic I decided to try a new recipe from a brand new book titled "Ham: An Obsession with the Hindquarter" by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $29.95). This book was not limited to interesting ham recipes. It was enjoyable to read and I learned a lot about ham. Here's an excerpt from the "Lesson in Anatomy" section: "A ham is the complete set of the four muscles, hip to shank. It can weigh from 12 to 28 pounds. The shank end has the thigh bone running right through the center of the meat. This cut is easier to carve but the meat is also a little chewier. The butt end includes a small piece of that thigh bone plus the more complicated structure of the hip's ball and socket, including the aitch bone. This cut is much more difficult to carve, thanks to all those bones, but the meat is more tender and definitely porkier, thanks again to all those bones."

How about that -- my dad was right about the bones!

I like easy, uncomplicated recipes for holidays and the Roasted Fresh Ham With a Maple-Spice Glaze recipe was exactly what I was looking for -- not a lot of fuss, no hard-to-find ingredients. A spice rub made with sugar, cinnamon, allspice, cloves and nutmeg is rubbed over the pork before it goes in the oven. After 31/2 hours of roasting, you begin basting the pork with maple syrup. The total roasting time is slightly less than five hours.

This leaves you with a deliciously spicy crust without taking away the flavor of the pork. The cookbook also offers numerous side dish suggestions and ways to "slash the shopping list," and each recipe comes with testers' notes.

The USDA's internal temperature recommendation for cooked pork is 160 degrees. I followed the authors' advice and cooked my pork until it reached 170 degrees. Here's the authors' explanation: "We've found that ham, unlike pork chops, is still a bit tough at 160 degrees. The reason? By 160 degrees most of the natural juice has been squeezed out of the tightening planes of the meat fibers, but that juice hasn't yet been replaced by collagen and connective tissue melt, both of which happen at just about 160 degrees. We find that 170 degrees is a better marker; the collagen has melted infusing those dry meat fibers again with juice, thereby yielding a more tender slice on the dinner plates."

Not only did the ham taste fantastic, it also was picture-perfect. Now I have to do it all over again Easter Sunday. And that's OK because now the rest of our family will have the pleasure of tasting a fresh ham.


PG tested

  • 8- to 10-pound bone-in fresh ham, preferably from the shank end, any rind removed
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup

Put the ham in a large roasting pan, preferably one that's shiny enough to reflect lots of ambient heat and not so flimsy that it tips when you pick it up. Set the oven rack as high as it can go and still afford the ham at least 2 inches of head space. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Mix sugar, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg and salt in a small bowl. Smooth the spice mixture all over the ham's external surface. Work it down into some of the crevices but be careful to avoid any deep-tissue massage. A ham is a complex structure of muscle groups -- too much massage and they can come apart like Goldie Hawn in "Death Becomes Her."

Cover the whole kit and caboodle with aluminum foil, shove it in the oven, and leave it alone for 31/2 hours, while you go do whatever it is you do when a big, sweating hunk of meat is roasting in your oven.

Peel off the aluminum foil. Baste the ham with about half the maple syrup, preferably using a basting brush. Take it easy so you don't knock off the spice coating. Use small strokes -- think Impressionism, not Abstract Expressionism. Or just dribble the syrup off a spoon.

Continue roasting the ham, uncovered this time, basting every 15 minutes or so with more maple syrup as well as any pan drippings, until an instant-read meat thermometer inserted into the thickest park of the meat without touching bone registers 170 degrees, about 11/4 hours. If it starts to singe or turn too dark, tent it loosely with foil, uncovering it just at the last to get it back to crunchy crisp.

Transfer the ham to a cutting board and let it rest at room temperature for 15 minutes before carving.

Serves about 12 or more.

-- "Ham: An Obsession with the Hindquarter," by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $29.95).

Arlene Burnett writes the Kitchen Mailbox column; . First Published March 25, 2010 4:00 AM


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