Why is ham eaten at Christmas?
Eating a Christmas ham is a centuries old tradition enjoyed throughout Northern Europe, and also in many parts of the English-speaking world. In fact, many people believe that the practise dates back to pre-Christian times, and to the worship of the Norse god of fertility, Freyr.
In Germanic countries, the winter festival known as Yule is now associated mainly with Christmas, but many of its traditions, including the Yule log, the wassail, and the Yule or Christmas ham, are thought to have their roots in pagan rituals. The ham in particular may have begun as a sacrifice to the god Freyr, whose sacred animal was a boar. The boar, known as a sonargöltr, was sacrificed on Yule Eve, and people would lay their hands on its bristles and swear oaths before the sacrifice was made.
Today, the ritual survives in Sweden in the form of small, pig-shaped cakes that are eaten during the Christmas period, and in many countries it also continues as that well-loved tradition, the Christmas ham. In past centuries, many households kept a pig, which was reared in spring, fattened up in summer and slaughtered in the fall. By midwinter, the meat would be nicely cured and ready for the Christmas table, so it seems likely that convenience would also have played a part in keeping this ancient tradition alive.
How to prepare ham
Follow these simple steps to make your best Christmas ham yet.
Choose your ham
There are several different types of ham available, each of which should be treated in different ways.
Raw or fresh ham has not been pre-cooked, and must be fully cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F before serving.
City ham is the most widely-available type of ham. These hams have already been brined and either smoked or boiled. They can be eaten cold, but most people prefer to treat them with a glaze and reheat them to make them extra-special.
Country ham is more intensely-flavoured than its city cousin, with a sweet, nutty, extra-salty taste. It is dry-cured in salt and other seasonings, often smoked over fragrant hardwoods, and may be aged anywhere from a few months to several years. Country ham usually requires soaking before you cook it, to remove some of the saltiness.
Use bone-in ham
Ham is available both on and off the bone, but joints that have the bone left in tend to have more flavour, and they make a better centrepiece, too. Once you’ve finished the ham, you can boil the bone in soups or stocks to add extra flavour.
Make sure there’s plenty to go round
If you’re wondering how much you need, roughly ¾ lb per person should be enough for a bone-in ham. If your ham is boneless, you don’t need to account for the weight of the bone, so ¼ lb each should be plenty. It’s always best to err on the side of there being too much, however, as there are lots of delicious ways to use up leftover ham.
Use a glaze
Adding a glaze to your ham is the best way to take those salty pork flavours to the next level. Many families will have their own traditional recipes, and most involve sweet or spicy ingredients like fruit juice, alcohol, honey, mustard, brown sugar, fruit preserves, herbs or spices.
Bake it right
Follow these foolproof pro tips to bake the perfect ham
- If you have a pre-cooked ham, you’ll need to bake it for around 10 minutes per pound, at a temperature of 350°F
- Place your ham cut-side down in a baking dish, and make a tent of foil around it to prevent moisture from escaping.
- Brush the ham with extra glaze and baste with pan juices every 20 minutes or so.
- For the last 3 to 5 minutes, remove the foil and place the meat under the broiler until the glaze caramelises and turns golden brown.
- Leave it to sit for 15 minutes before carving.
If you’re looking for inspiration, take a look at our rundown of the top 10 ham recipes for your Christmas table.
A simple but flavourful recipe from Fine Dining Lovers, this sumptuous ham is glazed with sugar and English mustard for the perfect combination of spicy and sweet. The skin is scored with a diamond pattern and studded with cloves for a traditional look that makes the perfect centrepiece for any Christmas table.
If you like a smoked ham for Christmas, this fiery, fruity glaze is made with honey, lemon juice, orange marmalade, thyme, ginger and cayenne pepper, and makes the perfect foil for rich, smoky meat.
Sweet, fruity flavours mixed with something spicy are a classic combination when it comes to glazing a Christmas ham, and this recipe from Delish uses both to full advantage, with a mix of apricot jelly and brown mustard. For an extra serving of spicy-sweet goodness, serve with a side of roasted carrots, potatoes and radish.
Every celebration deserves champagne, and it just so happens that everyone’s favourite fizz makes the perfect glaze for your Christmas ham. This decadent champagne glazed ham from Gather For Bread is made with maple syrup, pineapples and a mild Dijon mustard, so it’s great for people who like their ham on the sweeter side, with a little less heat.
Another fruit and mustard classic, this pineapple glazed ham from Country Living is made with just five perfectly balanced ingredients, proving the old saying that sometimes less is more.
If you’re looking for something a little more refined, this grown-up glaze from Country Living combines coriander seed, a splash of vinegar and ground black pepper with orange marmalade for a complex blend of earthy, sweet flavours.
If you’re looking for something new and exciting, this smoky, boozy ham from Delish has it all, with oaky, smoky bourbon, sour cherries, sweet honey and fiery cayenne pepper all combining to bring out the best in those savoury, salty ham flavours. It’s made using spiral cut ham, so the glaze runs between each slice and coats it fully, but because this recipe is not too sweet, it doesn’t overpower the dish.
A sophisticated choice from Olive magazine, this is another glaze that isn’t overly sweet, combining the sweet-tart flavours of pomegranate juice and pomegranate molasses with the earthy, aniseed flavours of fennel and cumin seeds. There’s even a bonus recipe for a savoury sweet pomegranate and onion relish to eat alongside it.
This richly flavoured ham from Delicious Magazine may need a few more steps to make, but you will be rewarded with a deeply satisfying dish with many layers of flavour. This show-stopping centrepiece is boiled in cider and herbs, baked in a sugar and mustard glaze, and served with a spicy, tart-sweet relish of tamarind, raisins and chipotle chilis.
If you love Mexican flavours, you can switch the honey and mustard for mango salsa and jalapeño chilis with this Mexican-inspired ham from Delicious Magazine. Keep it mild and sweet with jalapeños, or turn up the heat with some fiery red chilis.
If these festive ham recipes have got you in the Christmas spirit, take a look at our wide selection of Christmas dinner ideas, and start planning your dream Christmas.