CORRECTION 8 December 2023: An earlier version of this article listed the price of the IGA Naturally Smoked Leg Ham as $5.59 per kilo. The correct price is $8 per kilo.
Christmas day is just around the corner, and if you're cooking this year, chances are you're in the market for a Christmas ham.
Aussies love ham, and the Christmas ham is a seasonal staple. Last year, supermarket giant Woolworths predicted a total of 1.8 million kilograms of half-leg hams would be bought in that year's festive season.
Whether you're a foodie with MasterChef abilities or a newbie in the kitchen, choosing and preparing the perfect ham can be a little daunting with so many people to impress.
We've tested eight supermarket leg hams, and gathered some expert advice on buying and cooking the perfect Christmas ham to minimise some of the festive stress.
We selected eight Christmas hams available nationally from IGA, Woolworths, Coles and Aldi. We then set up a blind taste test where our experts tasted each product both cold and warm. They rated the ham on flavour, texture, appearance and smell.
You may think there's not much difference between supermarket hams – ham is ham, right? Well, our blind taste test found that the quality can actually vary dramatically, and price isn't necessarily an indicator of quality. The lowest ranked ham scored just 21% and cost $15 per kilo, while an IGA ham that cost $8 a kilo topped the test with a score of 73%.
These products were the panel's favourites:
IGA Naturally Smoked Leg Ham
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 73%
- Price per kg: $8.00
- Experts say: Looks appealing, moist and natural, reasonably moist when heated, a little smoky flavour, mild but pleasant taste.
Woolworths Gold Triple Smoked Leg Ham
- CHOICE Expert Rating: 72%
- Price per kg: $16.00
- Experts say: Natural appearance, very nice texture and smokiness integrated with the pork flavour, heating did not dry it out, pleasant firmness, very nice flavour and nice balance of smoke, sweetness and pork.
If you're planning to serve ham for Christmas dinner, we recommend buying one as early as the start of December (hams generally have a 3-month use-by date). But before you start shopping, check these expert tips for choosing the right Christmas ham for you.
A traditional Christmas ham is usually ham on the bone – either a shank or a slightly larger leg cut. The meat from these bone-in hams is usually more flavoursome and juicier than what you'd get from a boneless cut. But it is worth noting that boneless ham is easier to carve into uniform slices, so it could be a good option if convenience is a priority.
Consider the number of guests you'll be serving. As a general rule, you should allow about 225–340g of ham per person. Standard ham on the bone comes in a half-leg size, but these can vary in weight and some varieties can be found in quarter-leg sizes. These can be the shank end or the thigh end cut of the leg.
Look for hams that have flecks of white fat, known as marbling, for extra juiciness. And if possible, try to buy Australian pork – check for the 'Australian Pork' logo.
4. Sow stall-free
A sow stall or gestation crate is a crate where a pregnant pig (the sow) is kept throughout the pregnancy. The stall is 2m long and 60cm wide, and the sow can sit, stand and take one step forward and backward but can't turn around.
Due to the size of the crate, the sow's movement is very restricted, which can lead to injuries and discomfort. They are also unable to express natural behaviours such as socialisation, foraging and exploration. The animal welfare organisation RSPCA says this means they get insufficient sleep and rest, and they are more stressed.
Apart from ethical considerations, a 2023 study found that the less stressed the pigs are, the higher the meat quality, so buying sow stall-free means you're getting a more ethical and higher quality meat.
Three Christmas hams in our test were labelled as containing no added artificial hormones; all were Coles hams. (The other hams did not make such claims, but that doesn't mean they contained artificial hormones.)
Hormones can be synthetic or natural. Hormones such as estrogen and testosterone can be used to create leaner and more muscular animals that tend to grow larger and more quickly, without consuming as much feed as animals who are not supplemented with hormones.
Growth promotants such as added hormones have been banned by the European Union. The European Commission cites several scientific opinions as the reason behind the decision, which say there is a potential risk to human health from hormone residues in meat products. The World Trade Organization says this decision is not supported by science.
Both natural and synthetic hormone residues can be found in the meat, which may result in health problems. When looking at the labels, be aware that claims of being "free from artificial growth promotants" (which was present on the Coles hams) don't mean the ham is free from all growth promotants, just artificial ones. This means they still may have used naturally derived growth promotants.
6. Smoked or unsmoked
The process of smoking creates the typical flavour many people associate with ham. Smoked ham tends to have a richer deeper flavour, while unsmoked hams have a milder taste. The smoking process can also be repeated for a stronger, smokier flavour (if that's your preference), but this generally drives up the cost of your ham. The average price per kg for single smoked ham was $8.00, double smoked was $10.50 and triple smoked was $15.00
7. Other additives
Sugar is often added to counterbalance the saltiness from the brining, but the amount of sugar added is almost negligible – the values on the packs we checked were all less than 1g per 100g.
Nitrites are also added during the brining process to control the growth of bacteria and give the meat a reddish colour and a favourable aroma and texture. Nitrite levels must be kept under certain concentrations to ensure the meat cures safely. They are usually listed as additive number 250 or sodium nitrite and were found in all the hams tested.
Both nitrates and processed meats like ham are known to have health risks, so it's best to limit ham in your diet.
The phosphates mentioned earlier as water binders are classified as stabilisers and they can be listed as additive numbers 450 to 452. They were present in all the hams we tested and unfortunately may have a negative effect on health.
How ham is cured
Hams are typically cured by injecting or pumping them with a curing mixture of brine and sugar, then massaging them and soaking them in more brine. Phosphate binders are used in this process to help the ham retain some of the extra water introduced during this process. The ham is then usually cooked or heat-processed for at least ten minutes.
The salt changes the texture of the ham and allows the muscle cells to absorb more water. And the water absorbed by the ham during this process means that even when it loses water through the cooking process, it still remains relatively moist.
Now that you've selected your ham, it's time to cook it to perfection. Follow these steps from CHOICE home economist Fiona Mair to ensure a delicious and succulent Christmas centrepiece.
1. Prepare the meat
Remove the ham from the fridge at least an hour before cooking to aid in even heating. Remove the rind (read Fiona's recipe below for more details on how to do this) and score the fat.
Create a glaze by mixing together sweet and flavourful ingredients like brown sugar, mustard, honey or fruit preserves and brush it generously over the scored fat.
If cooking in the oven, allow about 30–35 minutes for every kilogram. The temperature inside the thickest part of the meat must reach 70°C and the bone area should be more than 60°C.
To cook, place the ham on a rack in a roasting pan, skin-side up and add some water to the pan to prevent the glaze from burning. Cover the ham with foil for the first hour so it doesn't dry out.
Baste the ham with the glaze every 20–30 minutes to build up a flavourful, caramelised crust.
After cooking, cover the ham in foil and rest it for at least 20 minutes to allow the juices to settle.
Slice the ham to the desired thickness starting at the fat until you reach the bone. Then turn the ham over and slice to the bone again from the other side.
Serve the ham with your favourite sides, like roast vegetables and salads. Don't forget to include some homemade apple or honey mustard sauce!
8. Minimising waste
Get the most out of your ham by using the bone to make stock (which can be used as a base for pea and ham soup or other savoury dishes).
Any leftover ham can be eaten for the next few days by adding slices to sandwiches or chopped pieces to fried rice. Alternatively, you can freeze it for 3–4 months.
Whether you prefer a classic bone-in ham or a boneless one, the key to a mouth-watering holiday ham is in the quality of your selection and the care you put into its preparation. With these tips, you'll have a great centrepiece for your festive feast.
- 5–6kg leg of ham
- Roasting pan or large foil tray with a roasting rack
- Large sheet of foil
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- ½ cup orange juice
- ¼ cup maple syrup
To prepare the ham, remove the rind by running your thumb around the edge, just above the fat. Gently slide your hand under the rind to release the rind from the fat. If the ham has a shank, cut through the rind of the ham 10cm from the shank end of the leg before removing.
Prepare the fat by scoring with a sharp knife across the ham one way (avoid cutting through to the flesh), and then across the ham the other way, forming diamond shapes approximately 3–4 cm wide.
- Combine all marinade ingredients.
- Using a pastry brush gently brush the marinade over the fat.
- Insert a clove in each diamond.
- Place the ham onto the roasting rack in a roasting pan and cover with foil.
- Add some water to the bottom of the dish.
Baking ham in an oven
Cook the ham in a preheated oven 180°C fan-forced on a low shelf position for 2.5 to 3 hours. Remove the foil one hour before the end of the cooking time to crisp and brown the fat. Remove from the oven, cover and allow to rest for at least 20 minutes before serving.
Baking ham in a BBQ
Cook in a preheated BBQ indirectly (burners on either side) with the hood closed. For the first hour, the heat should be set to high (240°C). Then reduce the temperature to medium (180°C) for around 2.5 hours. Remove the foil one hour before the end of the cooking time.
Refrain from opening the BBQ as you'll lose heat and your cooking time will be longer.
Allow to rest covered for at least 20 minutes after cooking.
Wrap the cool ham in a calico cloth or bag or a tea towel sprayed with a little vinegar. Don't wrap the ham in plastic as the ham can sweat and spoil more quickly. Make sure the cloth is changed regularly.
We chose eight Christmas hams available in major supermarket chains nationally. We then set up a blind taste test where each product was tasted by experts both cold and warm, and given a rating based on flavour, texture, appearance and smell.
Not all characteristics in the taste test were treated equally, with flavour being the most important and given a heavier weighting, followed by texture, appearance and smell. The CHOICE Expert Rating, our overall score, is made up of the taste test score (90%) and the nutrition score (10%, based on the Health Star Rating only).
From left to right: Adam Moore, Jan Boon, Brigid Treloar and David Stössel.
Our expert test panel included:
- Adam Moore – an experienced culinary judge with over 25 years of experience in the industry and qualifications in pastry, charcuterie and butchery, sensory evaluation, food styling and food photography.
- Brigid Treloar – a freelance food consultant for over 30 years who has published eight cookbooks.
- Jan Boon – a home economist who has been judging local, interstate and regional food and Easter shows for over 35 years.
- David Stössel – a highly experienced hospitality professional who now leads Feather and Bone, Sydney's leading ethical and sustainable butcher and providore.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.