When you think of of Christmas foods, ham is right up there. Thin, juicy and sometimes smoky slices of the cured meat are a staple on Christmas lunch plates across Australia (and in sandwiches the next day), so it’s important to make sure you’ve got a topnotch leg.
Some butchers have already started taking pre-orders for the big day, and most have a cut-off date at least a few days before, so it’s best you sort out your hams early so you’ve got something sweet and tender to carve up at the table. Here are some tips on how to pick the best of the best.
Buy Australian pork on the bone
The call to support local businesses keeps getting stronger, particularly after such a devastating year for farmers and producers. But there’s more reason to shop for Australian pork than just community spirit – it really does taste better.
“Ham off the bone is the absolute sweetest and best to eat,” says Perth butcher Vince Garreffa, who founded his shop Mondo in 1979. “Bone-in is the only way you can guarantee you’ve got Australian ham made from Australian pork. The moment you buy any boneless form of ham, especially stuff that’s not made by a small artisan butcher, you’ll find there’s a high chance [it’s] imported pork.”
Keeping the bone in during the curing and smoking phases imparts more flavour and helps keep the meat moist. And being able to use the bone in stocks or soups is an added bonus.
Stick with free-range pigs
Melbourne’s Gary McBean – this year recognised as a local legend by the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival for his work at Gary’s Quality Meats – says how the pigs were raised is another important factor that affects flavour and texture.
“There’s nothing quite like the flavour of a true free-range ham. With a lot of the big pork companies, where all the pigs are penned up and fed who-knows-what, they’re just flavourless,” he says. “Every time we sell a ham to new customers, they say it tastes like the pork they used to have 30 years ago.”
Find a butcher you can trust
Mondo and Gary’s Quality Meats are both good places to start, but if you’re looking at other butchers in your area, make sure they know what they’re doing – and that you do, too.
“It’s important to find an artisan butcher that makes [their] own [ham], that’s the first thing we tell people,” Garreffa says. “On the first of December we start cooking night and day to have all our hams ready for Christmas.”
McBean agrees: “Find a good-quality butcher that doesn’t mass produce out of a huge factory where you don’t know what you’re actually getting and there isn’t a lot of care put in.”
Bigger isn’t always better
While larger legs of ham might seem like the more economical choice, they usually sacrifice flavour and texture for the cheaper pricepoint. They’re either made with older pigs that have a very strong pork flavour or are pumped up with more water than necessary for the brining process.
“They take an eight-kilo leg and make a 12-kilo ham out of it. They have the science these days to keep all the water and added weight in, but it weeps a bit which is easy to notice. It’s a wet ham and a lot of people re-bake them to get rid of the excess moisture, but it defeats the purpose,” Garreffa warns.
“When we cook a ham, we get an eight-kilo leg and pump it with 20 per cent water containing all the spices and flavours. When we cook it, it loses that 20 per cent so we’re back to the natural meat in perfect condition.”
A light rosiness means a more subtle pork taste, while a darker colour – usually found in male or older pigs – lends a “really strong porky flavour”, according to McBean.
“With the age of the pigs, they get darker in colour and bigger in size, and the flavour gets stronger and very porky, and a lot of people don’t like that strong pork taste. That’s why all of our pigs are around nine to 12 months old,” he says.
Garreffa also sticks to female pigs for all his products. “We like females because they don’t have any bad aromas ... They’re naturally sweeter and nicer.”
Taste it before committing – especially if you’re buying smoked ham
“The most important thing is a taste test. You don’t want to spend $200 on a ham you don’t like,” McBean says. “All butchers should have a ham open at Christmas time – they’ll be slicing it for samples. A good butcher can just look at a ham and know straight away how good it’s going to be, but it’s hard for the average consumer, so my biggest advice is to taste test.”
This is especially important if you’re unsure about the level of smokiness you want with your ham. Garreffa’s suggestion is to go for a lighter smoke if it’s your first time buying ham.
“The moment you get into the heavier smokes, about a quarter of people find it too confronting,” Garreffa says. “So butchers that lightly smoke will generally take an order from a client that wants it more heavily smoked and make it to order, because they’re in fewer numbers.”
Hot or cold? Glazed or plain? With fruit or none?
Once you’ve taken the ham home, the way you prep it is entirely up to you and your family’s preferences. Even our expert butchers do it differently.
In the McBean household, the star of the Christmas table is a porchetta roll, so they tend to keep the ham simple. They tried glazing a few years ago, but now prefer to let the juicy and smoky ham flavour shine through. And there’s no re-baking to be done.
“Personally I think there’s just too much happening in the oven at Christmas time for you to be dealing with the ham at the same time. We’ve always served our ham straight out of the fridge cold,” he says.
As for Garreffa, his family’s been doing it the same way for decades. They use a glaze of honey, brown sugar and orange juice, and top the ham with slices of pineapple, glacé cherries and cloves.
“It’s very Australian to come up with your own family heirloom recipe of putting [on] slices of something different – whether it’s lime or lemon or orange ... [or] peach, nectarine, plums, thin slices of banana,” he says. “Our favourite is the traditional one we’ve made for over 50 years. It’s a beautiful brown presentation. You eat the fat because the fat tastes too good, you can’t throw that away. And the sweetness of the fat to the saltiness of the ham is just heaven.”
Thinking of buying a turkey? Read our article: How to Buy, Serve and Cook the Best Turkey at Christmas.