Hams are available bone-in or boneless. Most people feel that bone-in hams are more flavorful and have better texture than boneless hams. Bone-in hams will have part of the leg bone or hipbone intact, plus some smaller bones depending on the cut. Boneless hams have had all the bones removed and are then bound up and tumbled in order to fill any voids in the meat. Boneless hams are easy to carve, of course, but a spiral sliced bone-in ham is probably a better choice since it combines better flavor with ease of serving.
You'll want to buy a ham of appropriate size based on the number of people you want to serve. You can purchase a whole ham (pretty much the entire leg of the hog) that will feed an army, or you can buy a half ham. Half hams come in two varieties: the butt end and the shank end. The butt end comes from the upper thigh and has a rounded end, whereas the shank end comes from the lower portion of the leg and has a pointed or tapered end.
Figure 2. Half Ham Varieties and Center Slices
Sometimes the best "center cut" slices are removed from half hams during processing. If the label on a half ham reads "shank end half" or "butt end half", then it includes these meaty center slices. If it says "shank end portion" or "butt end portion", then the center slices have been removed.
When choosing a whole, bone-in ham, authors Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly of The Complete Meat Cookbook write, "A short, plump shape with a stubby rather than an elongated shank is the best choice."
There's a lot of conflicting information about which type of half ham is the best one to buy. Cook's Illustrated writes, "You're better off getting a shank end rather than the butt end. This is because the butt end has less desirable meat, as it contains a lot of membrane, fat, and gristle. Its bone configuration can also make carving tricky." However, some butchers recommend a butt end ham, saying that it's meatier and has better flavor.
It's not clear to me that there's a big difference, and often when you visit the supermarket you just end up having to pick from what's available based on price and the size of ham you're looking for.
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