Last time on Is It Better Hot I categorically – using nothing but scientific rigour – proved that pizza is best enjoyed hot (despite starting out loving cold slices). Now that we’re squarely in the run-up to Christmas, it’s time to focus the experiment on a more festive food. And what’s more festive than ham?
We love Christmas ham here in Australia. It’s the ultimate proof that putting the word “Christmas” in front of anything will turn the mundane into the extraordinary. Ham? Sure, sounds okay. But Christmas ham? Would you like my firstborn?
As Broadsheet’s self-styled pork dork, I’m uniquely placed to answer the question: is ham better hot or cold?
I started by chatting to Troy Wheeler, who along with restaurateur Andrew McConnell owns Melbourne's specialty butcher Meatsmith. He prepares three of the shop’s rare-breed hams at three different temperatures for me to try.
The first is a cold ham. The second is warm, after spending 14 hours in a smoker. The third ham has just been glazed – it’s piping hot, and the light ripples on its skin as I move around it.
“Personally, for me – before I became a butcher and started making smallgoods myself – the classic cold leg of ham in the centre of the table that you can just carve and eat is probably my favourite,” Wheeler tells me. But I’m sceptical. I need to see for myself.
In the glorious hammy week between Christmas and the start of the new year, you’ll find me making countless trips to the fridge holding a carving knife, making a beeline for the blanket-shrouded leg of porky fun.
And my first bite of Meatsmith’s cold ham tastes fantastic. If it was in a sandwich it’d have to date down, because no bread is in its league. If it featured on an antipasto board even the cheese would be nervous about being upstaged.
Cold ham is supremely snackable. It’s easy to return to throughout the day. Carve yourself a few slices, chow down, repeat.
One point to cold ham for being the ideal snack temp. ❄️
Next up, I try the warm ham that’s just come out of the smoker. Texturally it’s more like steak than any ham I’ve ever had. And the fat is like a gooey wreath of béarnaise crowning the slice.
One point to hot ham for textural greatness. 🔥
But does ham straight out of the oven really make sense in Australia, where Christmases are smack-dab in the thick of summer? Maybe it’s time to go cold turkey on hot ham.
“Very traditionally Australian Christmases are always quite hot,” agrees Wheeler. “So cold ham is something nice with lovely fresh salads.”
One point to cold ham for being more ridgy-didge for this true-blue country. ❄️
Cold ham reminds me of all of the sad sangas I ate every day at school for about 10 years. It recalls packets stacked in supermarket fridges, holding pale, uninspiring meat that doesn’t look like it’s come from any animal on planet Earth. At the same time, though, packet ham provokes a strange kind of nostalgia in me. Most of our formative ham experiences (or FHE, the acronym is still catching on), come from having it at cold temperatures. But I have those cold and soggy sarnies to thank for fuelling my brain through high school, in turn getting me to a point where I get paid to eat artisanal ham. Is it thanks to those lunches that I am where I am today? Do I actually love bad ham sandwiches?
One point to cold ham for giving me Stockholm Syndrome. ❄️
Whether you serve it hot or cold, a whole leg of ham isn’t cheap. Even though an eight kilo-or-so leg can feed around 30 people quite comfortably. But serving a whole leg of ham straight out of the oven is a showstopper. It makes the ham’s presence feel like a real occasion. And although Christmas is a popular ham time, a whole leg is also great for birthdays, dinner parties, or hell, even an over-the-top picnic.
One point to hot ham for being a special snowflake. 🔥
Fact: hot ham is more versatile than its cold counterpart. Especially in the lead up to New Year’s Eve, where the further you get from December the more creative you have to be with your leftover game. Ham-and-cheese toasties are a given, as is substituting ham for bacon at breakfast. But Wheeler has an even more ingenious way to use the hot stuff.
“Keep those bits of fat that you trim away [when you carve your ham] and render them down in a little pot,” he says. “You can use it with potatoes or put it over popcorn – it’s really more-ish because it’s essentially smoked pork fat.”
Can’t do that with cold ham.
One point to hot ham for being flexible. 🔥
Three points to hot. Three points to cold. It’s going to come down to taste (and trying the hot glazed ham decided it). High-quality ham just tastes more three-dimensional than any cold ham I’ve ever had. With hot ham you don’t get any of that chalky mouthfeel that you can get from the solidified fat in a cold, overcooked ham, so hot ham is more forgiving if you haven’t prepared it properly. The fat in a cold ham is a collection of tallowy lumps that can’t compete with their warmer counterparts. In a hot ham, the fat is a regal jelly – like butter and bacon had a lovechild. Hot ham tastes like a concentrated version of itself. Cold ham only echoes the greatness of hot ham – and that just gets fainter with every bite.
One point to hot ham for giving us the broadest view of ham’s flavour potential. 🔥
Cold ham is an easy-to-smash super snack that smacks of nostalgia and makes more sense in Australian summer. But hot ham is a rare and beautiful thing. The texture. The flavour. The ceremony. Ham is better hot – but only just.
And if you want the best of all ham worlds, I suggest you glaze your Christmas ham yourself at home. That way you get the full spectrum of ham temps. Here’s Andrew McConnell’s go-to ham glaze recipe, to have a crack at yourself.
Andrew McConnell’s Stout Glaze
Makes enough for one leg of ham.
1 cooked ham on the bone, skin on
4 cups stout
2 cups brown sugar, plus an additional 500g
1 cup fresh orange juice, strained
2 wide strips orange peel
3 tbsp whole cloves
To make the glaze, place the stout, 2 cups of sugar, orange juice and orange peel in a saucepan and bring up to a simmer. Lower the heat and reduce the mixture by half, or until it’s lightly syrupy. Set aside.
To prepare the ham, use your fingers and the tip of a knife to carefully peel off the skin, leaving as much of the fat attached to the ham as you can. Gently rub the extra brown sugar all over the fat.
With a sharp knife, lightly score the fat in a diamond pattern, cutting carefully into the fat but not all the way to the flesh. Press a clove into each intersection.
Line a heavy roasting tray with foil first, then baking paper, and place the ham on a rack on top. Pour a cup of water into the base of the tray, then bake the ham for 20 minutes, or just enough to warm it through and see a little colour on the fat.
Take the ham out of the oven and cover it in the glaze using a pastry brush. Return to the oven and bake, re-applying the glaze every 10 to 15 minutes, until the ham is deeply coloured and sticky.
Serve with pickled cherries and mustard.
Victorians can order Meatsmith hams online here. Get yours in by December 15 to have it in time for Christmas. In New South Wales, we've rounded up our four favourite hams (and one delicious fish). In Adelaide, you can get your Christmas ham from Barossa Fine Foods, Marino Meat Store and Boston Bay Smallgoods. In Brisbane, you can order your ham online at Meat at Billys and in Perth, Mondo.