This column first appeared in the Wine Spectator.

Though ham is often more associated with Easter, it's actually much more popular during the Christmas holidays, our second favorite, in fact, after turkey. However, for many Americans, ham is a lot more confusing than turkey. Is it smoked? Fully cooked? Water added? Yikes, no wonder turkey is number one! But you don't have to be ham-handed for the holidays. There are delicious hams out there, waiting to be baked in your oven, many available via mail order.

While most people think that ham is always cured, ham actually refers to the pig's hind leg. Uncured or "fresh" hams are essentially pork roasts. (A roasted fresh ham is also a fabulous idea for the holidays.) Picnic ham is the front leg and part of the shoulder, which are cured like traditional ham. Unlike prosciutto and American country hams, which are dry cured with salt, the hams that grace our holiday tables are wet-cured using a brine or saline solution.

More and more hams are being made from heritage breeds of pigs, mostly old English breeds, which have been making a comeback because of their superior flavor. One such ham comes from A&J Meats in Seattle, which makes the best baked ham I've ever eaten. A&J uses Berkshire pigs, one of the most highly regarded of the heritage breeds. Raised in eastern Oregon, the Berkshire (called Kurobuta by the Japanese, who covet them) pigs are allowed to forage for food, but their primary feed is barley. "Barley gives them better flavor, color and fat," says Rick Friar, who operates the family business co-founded by his father in 1951.

Heritage breeds also tend to be older when slaughtered, as much as three times the age of conventional breeds, according to Patrick Martins of Heritage Foods USA, which also uses Berkshire pigs as well as Duroc, Red Wattle, and Tamworth heritage breeds. "This gives them a very healthy muscle structure. So you're starting out with a very muscular, juicy, well-marbled product," Martins says.

Heritage Foods and Nueske's Applewood Smoked Meats both cure their hams by injecting them with a saline solution, the way most hams are cured. Tanya Nueske, National Sales Manager of Nueske's, located in Wittenberg, Wisc., says this gives the ham a more even cure.

In cheaper hams, that solution often contains carrageenan or phosphates, which help the meat retain water. These hams have become so prevalent that they have turned many people away from ham altogether. "You lose all the flavor. All you're tasting is a chemical taste," Friar says. The A&J ham and the Jones Dairy Farm old-fashioned Hickory Smoked ham I tasted are both immersed in a brine solution.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, water is permitted in products labeled "ham" as long as the meat is at least 20.5% protein. "Ham with natural juices" must be at least 18.5% protein. And "ham - water added" must be at least 17.0% protein with 10% added solution. The more water, of course, the cheaper the ham. "You can find such an enormous price range in hams, as low as 99 cents a pound in some places," says Philip Jones, president of Jones Dairy Farm in Ft. Atkinson, Wisc. The four hams I tried all ranged from $6 to $7 a pound.

Though not required, most hams are smoked after curing. Paradise Locker Meats in Trimble, Mo., which cures the Heritage Foods hams, uses atomized liquid hickory smoke. Such hams cannot be labeled "hickory smoked" because that requires wood. Nueske, which builds its own smoke houses, uses applewood logs and smokes for 24 hours.

The Jones ham is cold smoked with hickory over three days, so it wasn't surprising that it was by far the smokiest of the four hams, too smoky for me, though the meat was rich and firm. (Quality hams need a knife and shouldn't be falling apart.) Nueske's ham was the second smokiest, though the smoke didn't overpower the flavorful meat. The pork flavor and smokiness (also from applewood and done to order) in the A & J ham were in perfect balance. Just as important with hams, the moist meat was the best tasting the next day, and the next and∑  The Heritage ham was nicely balanced though not as moist or rich as the A&J.

A good cured ham should have a deep rose or pink color. For optimum flavor and moistness, it should have at least one of the three bones remaining. Semi-boneless hams have either the shank or the aitch bone removed - which A&J does - leaving the leg bone. This makes carving easier. Whole hams, which can serve up to 20 people, generally weigh 16 to 20 pounds.

Most holiday hams are cooked and are so labeled. Baking merely heats them. The raw Jones ham is an exception. But the time it took to cook to 150 degrees wasn't significantly longer than the time required to heat a cooked ham to a serving temperature of 140 degrees. Baked hams should be served warm, not hot like roasts.

Baked ham recipes typically call for heating in a 325-degree oven for up to three hours, or to 140 degrees. However, better hams that have less water can dry out with this method. Friar suggests wrapping the ham completely with foil and heating it at 300 degrees for two to four hours. My 13.5 pound ham registered only 108 degrees after 3 1/2 hours when I had to take it out. (My guests were starting to eat the furniture.) Still, it was juicy, and nobody complained that it was too cold.

Another suggestion is to simmer the ham just barely covered in water (and whatever seasonings you like, such as bay leaves and peppercorns, but not salt) for up to three hours. Friar says one of his customers uses orange juice and bourbon.

Bourbon (recommended by Jones) was in my favorite glaze. Glazes go on hams during the final 20 minutes, when the internal temperature reaches about 130 degrees. Glazes give hams an attractive, lustrous finish, though they don't penetrate very deeply. (Scoring the outside of the ham helps.) Still, I love those caramelized outer slices as well as the glazed bits and pieces all around the ham.

Most glazes have a sweet fruit component such as crushed pineapple, orange marmalade or apricot preserves. Additional sweetness comes from brown sugar, honey or maple syrup. Something sharp and/or acidic, such as mustard or vinegar, is added to balance the sweetness. None of it is rocket science. That bourbon glaze is just two cups of brown sugar, one cup Dijon mustard, and one-fourth cup bourbon, whisked together. The glaze should be thick enough so it doesn't run off the ham easily. (Get it very cold if it looks too runny.) Brush the ham with half of the glaze and put it in a preheated 450-degree oven until it sets, about 10 minutes. Apply a second coating and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until the glaze nicely caramelizes but doesn't burn.

Rick Friar doesn't use glazes because he wants the flavor of the ham to stand on its own. But he does use dipping sauces, such as one made with bottled steak sauce and orange juice. In the Jones family, the condiment of choice is dry English mustard reconstituted with water, beer or rice wine vinegar. As condiments for ham, I like cranberry sauce in almost any form as well as chutneys made with dried fruits.

Those condiments and sweet sauces, not to mention side dishes such as candied sweet potatoes, can wreak havoc on big, complex wines. So choose wines with good acidity, light to medium weight and plenty of fruit. For reds, I liked Beaujolais (Villages or Cru) and California or Oregon Pinot Noir. Dry or off dry whites, include German Kabinett or Spatlese Rieslings, Alsatian Riesling, Pinot Grigio with a bit more richness than usual, Vouvray and Savennières. A rosé with some oomph is also a good choice. Even better is a rosé sparkling wine. After all, this is the holiday season.

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