The perfect centerpiece for an Easter meal, ham is hard to top for any large gathering. It's easy to cook, almost impossible to overcook, will wait patiently for hours to be served and makes a fine sandwich.

But what exactly is ham? Everyone knows that it comes from a pig and that it is somehow distinct from pork, but beyond that, confusion reigns.

In fact, "ham" simply refers to the hind leg of a pig and usually connotes a hind leg that has been cured.

To cure, in culinary terms, is to preserve, and there are two major ways of preserving ham, with salt and with smoke. Salt can be introduced either by a dry cure (coating the ham with salt) or a wet cure (soaking it in salt water, or brine). Most cured hams use more than one method.

 

COMMON HAM

This is the classic American ham — what you see piling up at the supermarket this time of year, what they sell at the HoneyBaked Ham store. Wet-cured and smoked, it may be bone-in, boneless or spiral-cut.

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Wet-cured hams used to be soaked in brine (salt water), but today they are more often injected with brine, which speeds up the cure. They may have been smoked by a wood fire, or there may be smoke flavoring in the brine.

Most of these hams are ready-to-eat: They can be heated, but they don't need to be. "Cooking" a ready-to-heat ham usually entails slathering it with a sweet glaze, perhaps laying on some pineapple slices and securing them with cloves, and baking until hot throughout. On the rare occasions that a packaged ham needs cooking, the FDA requires that it be clearly labeled "cook thoroughly," and also have cooking directions on the label.

The label also contains crucial information about what, besides meat, is in the ham. A product labeled, simply, "ham" derives at least 20.5 percent of its weight from protein. But manufacturers like to pump up their hams with water — a cheap way to get them to weigh more. The FDA is on to this and mandates the following labeling standards: Ham with natural juices contains at least 18.5 percent protein; ham water added contains at least 17 percent protein with 10 percent added solution; ham and water product is anything that contains less than 17 percent meat by weight, and the label also must note how much of that weight is water.

Finally, whole hams are actually less common than halves. At the market you will see a shank half (from the hoof end) or a butt half (no explanation necessary). The butt has more meat, but it also contains a bone structure that's tricky to carve around. A semi-boneless ham will be easier to carve. The easiest ham to carve is the spiral-cut ham, which has been pre-sliced at the factory; a few well-aimed cuts by you is all it needs to surrender.

 

Feed Me

AMERICAN COUNTRY HAM

The country ham is one of the South's proudest culinary traditions. Some are named for their state (Virginia) or town (Smithfield, Virginia) of origin, or for their producer, such as Benton's of Madisonville, Tennessee. Country hams are dry-cured — coated with salt and then hung for about a year during which time much of the meat's moisture evaporates, resulting in a dense, dry, salty ham. If this reminds you of prosciutto, it should. Italy's prosciutto and Spain's jamón serrano are both dry-cured hams. Unlike prosciutto and serrano hams, however, country hams are usually smoked. Hickory is a favored wood.

Country hams do not need to be cooked, and connoisseurs believe that they should not be. Like prosciutto, they can be thinly sliced and enjoyed at room temperature. If you do cook a country ham, you may want to soak or simmer it beforehand to rid it of some of its salt.

 

PICNIC HAM

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Because it's a cured cut from the pig's front leg rather than the back, a picnic ham isn't actually a ham. And whereas a true ham includes the hip, thigh and lower leg and weighs 10 to 15 pounds, the picnic ham includes the lower shoulder and upper and lower foreleg and weighs 5 to 8 pounds, making it a good choice for a smaller group. It also may be labeled "picnic shoulder" or "picnic arm" or some combination thereof.

 

FRESH HAM

A fresh ham is simply an uncooked leg of pork. A whole fresh ham can weigh more than 20 pounds, making it an appropriate (if time-consuming) main dish for a crowd.

 

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RECIPES:

HONEY-MUSTARD GLAZED HAM

This recipe will also work with a boneless or spiral-cut ham, or a shank or butt half. 1 8- to 12-pound bone-in smoked ham (ham with natural juices or ham water added)

1 cup packed brown sugar

½ cup honey

¼ cup Dijon mustard

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rinse ham, pat dry and place on a rack in a large roasting pan. Cover with foil and bake 2 hours. While it cooks, combine brown sugar, honey and mustard and, over low heat, stir until sugar has dissolved and mixture is smooth.

2. Remove ham from oven and coat with glaze, then continue to cook for 1 to 1½ hours more, until an instant-read thermometer reads 140 degrees. (Make sure the thermometer goes into a thick, meaty area and does not touch the bone.) Let ham sit at least 30 minutes before carving. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

 

BAKED SMITHFIELD HAM WITH BOURBON, HONEY AND PECAN GLAZE

In his "Pig: King of the Southern Table" (Wiley, 2010), James Villas writes that Smithfield Ham "is so beautifully processed that it can be sliced paper thin and served raw like prosciutto. On the other hand, when the ham is slowly baked . . . the result is a culinary masterpiece. If you're truly offended by saltiness in foods, you can soak a Smithfield for no longer than about six hours before baking it, but remember that you do so at the expense of distinctive flavor."

1 12- to 14-pound Smithfield or other country ham

½ cup bourbon

½ cup apple juice

1½ cup packed dark brown sugar

1 cup ground toasted pecans

¼ cup honey

? teaspoon cayenne pepper

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Scrub ham well with a stiff brush under running water, position it on a rack in a large baking pan, add 2 cups water, cover and bake for 2½ hours, adding a little more water if necessary.

2. Combine the bourbon and apple juice in a saucepan and boil over moderately high heat till reduced to about ½ cup. In a bowl, combine the brown sugar, pecans, honey and cayenne and stir until well-blended. Add the bourbon mixture and stir to form a paste.

3. Remove ham from oven and increase heat to 400 degrees. Using a sharp knife, remove and discard the skin and all but about ½ inch of fat, score the surface fat in diamonds and rub the paste evenly over the top and sides. Return ham to oven and bake, uncovered, until the surface has a glossy mahogany glaze, about 30 minutes. To serve, let the ham stand for about 30 minutes on a platter before carving into thin slices. Makes at least 12 servings, with leftovers.

 

PERNIL AL HORNO (LATIN AMERICAN SLOW-ROASTED PORK SHOULDER)

In her award-winning "All About Roasting" (Norton, 2011), Molly Stevens writes that this "classic Latin American dish of slow-roasted pork shoulder seasoned with a heady mixture of garlic, oregano, and citrus . . . is a festive party centerpiece, especially because it's simple to carve — it mostly falls off the bone." Seasoning the pork in advance (anywhere from 24 to 48 hours) will allow the flavors to "work their way through the entire roast." Serve with white rice and black beans.

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns

6 garlic cloves, smashed

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon kosher salt

? teaspoon cayenne

? cup fresh orange juice

? cup fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 bone-in, skin-on pork picnic shoulder

1. Place cumin seeds in a small skillet and heat over medium-low heat until lightly toasted, about 2 minutes. Cool, then combine with peppercorns in a spice grinder or a mortar and grind coarsely. Add garlic, oregano, salt and cayenne. Grind again to form a rough paste. Set aside. In a small bowl, combine the orange juice, lime juice and oil. Set aside.

2. Using a box cutter, utility knife or other razor-sharp knife, score the rind in parallel lines ?- to ½-inch apart. Score deep into the fat (about ½-inch deep), but avoid cutting into the meat. Turn the roast and score the rind on the bottom and sides as well. Using a sharp paring knife, poke several holes in the cut side of the pork (the side with no skin). Rub the entire surface of the roast with the spice paste, doing your best to get some of the paste into the incisions in the skin. If you have a plastic bag large enough to hold the pork, place it in one (Reynolds large oven bags work well). Otherwise, place the pork in a deep bowl just large enough to hold it. Pour the marinade over the roast and massage it to coat it evenly. Place the bag in a baking dish or large bowl and refrigerate for 24 to 48 hours, turning occasionally to redistribute the marinade. Remove from marinade (reserving marinade) and let it sit at room temperature, uncovered, for 1 to 2 hours before roasting to dry the skin and help it crisp in the oven.

3. Set a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat to 450 degrees. Set the roast skin side up on a rack set in a sturdy roasting pan. Roast for 30 minutes, then reduce temperature to 250 degrees. Combine reserved marinade with ½ cup cool water and pour over meat. Continue roasting, basting every 2 to 2½ hours with the drippings until the meat is fork-tender and pulling away from the shank bone, 8 to 9 hours. If the liquid evaporates, add about ½ cup of water to pan. If after 5 hours you notice that the underside is not browning, flip the meat and let it roast skin side down for a few hours before righting it. It should finish roasting right side up.

4. To test for doneness, insert a meat fork into the wide end of the roast and gently pull. If a chunk of meat pulls away easily, the roast is done. Be careful not to tear the meat from the roast; just tug it to get a feel. Also, check to see that the meat at the shank end of the roast has contracted, leaving the bone exposed some. If you're unsure, check the internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer; you're looking for something in the 175- to 185-degree range.

5. Let the pork rest for about 30 minutes. Unless you have a very sharp knife, it's easiest to begin by carving off the rind. (If you notice parts of rind that are soft and chewy, not crisp, cut them into smaller pieces and place them on a rimmed baking sheet and cook in a 450-degree oven until crisp, 5 to 10 minutes.) Thinly slice pork and chop the rind into crackling bits to put on each plate. Spoon any juices that run from the meat over it as you carve. Makes 8 to 10 servings.