Serious Eats / Grace Kelly
My father-in-law loves ham. To put it in perspective, not only does he relish any holiday where ham graces the table, but he specifically requests it for his birthday in September, too. Lucky for him I took on the enviable task (well, to him at least) of testing mail-order hams in the very month of his birthday and invited him over for a “hamboree” to try a few (like a jamboree, but with ham—get it?). And, while you might think, “How different can a hunk of ham really be?” we tried almost every type you can buy, including a prosciutto-like offering, a barbecued picnic ham, and many iterations of spiral-cut and uncut whole hams. Not only did we judge them based on how easy they were to prepare and how they tasted, but we also noted how they arrived, since no one wants to order a ham online only to find it thawed out on its shipping journey.
The Winners, at a Glance
This boneless ham had a honey-colored crust, was super easy to bake and slice, and was downright delicious. It was moist, flavorful (with a touch of sweetness), and perfectly seasoned. We also think the leftovers would be lovely cooked up in bean or pea soup.
With a dark, almost bark-like exterior, this bone-in ham had my in-laws oo-ing and aww-ing. And the flavor was fantastic, too, with a faint smokiness and subtle sweetness, and a very moist and tender texture.
This ham arrived frozen and tightly wrapped in a plastic coating and mesh bag. We loved its smoky flavor and the spiral cut made it super easy to slice and serve.
This is a truly tiny ham and a big departure from the massive hams we tested. But though it’s small in size, it’s big in flavor, with a faintly smoky sweetness. It tasted just as good cold as it did heated up.
You can often find Benton’s ham on menus at good restaurants, but did you know you can buy a whole leg of it for only $83? We’re talkin’ a near prosciutto-like, smoky leg that you can slice slivers from for cheese boards, to wrap around fruit, or to fry up in a pan with some red eye gravy and biscuits. It’ll redefine what you think ham can be.
Serious Eats / Grace KellyShipping Inspection: We inspected each package to see if the ham arrived frozen (if that was intended) and to see how insulated it was. Preparation Test: We followed instructions (included in the package or online) to prepare each ham, noting if it was easy as well as the final results. Taste Test: We had two to four people taste each ham, noting its consistency and texture, flavor, and how easy it was to slice and serve.
What We Learned
What Exactly Is Ham?
Hams come in all shapes, flavors, and sizes, like this dry cured, smoked offering from Benton’s.Serious Eats / Grace Kelly
If you shop for ham online or at the grocery store, you might be confused by all the labels: Fresh ham, ham, uncured ham, smoked ham, cured ham, bone-in, boneless. What do they all mean? The USDA defines ham (just plain ‘ol ham) as “the cured leg of pork,” while “fresh ham” is uncured (more on what that means shortly). Curing a pork leg simply means the leg was salted or brined (often with added nitrates, which give ham its pink color) as a preservation method. If you see ham labeled “uncured” or “fresh,” this doesn’t mean that it wasn’t salted or brined, it simply means there were no chemical additives (like nitrates) used during the process. Sometimes a brand will use celery seed instead, which manufacturers often claim is a “natural” nitrate. However, this meat still has nitrates in it, regardless of whether they are the pink salt kind or derived from a plant.
Smoked ham is another style you can look for, though intensity can vary depending on how long it was smoked and what wood chips were used. Some hams are REALLY smoky, so if you (or whoever you’re serving) don’t love that wood-chip smell and aroma, this might be something to steer clear of. We found most of the hams we tasted were low-to-moderately smoky, but Benton’s ham was really, really smokey—but they’re known for this intense hickory smoke flavor. If you’re not into smoke, look for hams that have been smoked for a shorter time or that lean on the flavors of milder wood chips, like apple, cherry, or alder.
Boneless Vs. Bone-In
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly
In the end, we didn’t really find a huge difference in terms of taste when it came to boneless versus bone-in hams. Sure the bone-in hams, like this one from D’Artagnan, looked nicer—and it feels like you’re serving dinner at a medieval banquet when you carve collops from it—but they weren’t necessarily moister or more flavorful than the boneless hams we tried. The difference was really that the boneless hams had more fat marbling throughout (while the bone in hams had veins of fat delineating different sections), like in the Omaha ham, but this turned out not to be as gross as it sounds. When the ham was heated, the fat melted and kept the meat moist. That said, it was more like deli meat than meat from a bone-in ham.
Most Hams Were Pre-Cooked and Easy to Warm Up
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly
All of the hams we ordered were pre-cooked, which makes serving all that much easier. Basically, when you bake a ham, you’re just reheating it so it doesn’t pass as deli meat. Nearly all of the hams we tasted were also incredibly easy to warm, requiring only a deep roasting pan (a half-sheet pan works in a pinch, but there’s more risk of spilling) filled with about 1/4 to 1/2 to an inch of water and an oven temperature ranging between 275°F and 350°F. Some brands recommended tenting the ham with foil, which we found beneficial to ensuring the ham emerged moist rather than dry and leathery (this is especially true of spiral-cut hams, which we will get into momentarily).
The exception to this was the Benton’s ham, which was more like prosciutto than ham you might eat at Easter. You can either serve thin slices shaved fresh off the leg or, as they suggested on the included pamphlet, heat pieces up in a skillet, perhaps with a dash of coffee to make a simple red eye gravy and serve it with some grits or a fluffy biscuit.
Spiral-Cut Hams Dried Out Faster
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly
While spiral-cut hams offer serving convenience (especially if there’s a big bone running through the center), we did find that they tended to dry out faster than whole, uncut hams. If you do like the convenience of spiral-cut hams, we recommend baking them cut side down and tenting them with foil to retain as much moisture as possible.
Texture Was Important
Rubbery, snappy ham was off-putting.Serious Eats / Grace Kelly
The hams we tasted came in a surprising array of textures, with our favorites having some chew to them but without being leathery. Some hams, like the Rastelli’s, had an unpleasant grainy, chewy, and snappy texture that was redolent of cold-cut deli ham, but not in a good way. The Omaha ham also had a little bit of a snappy bite to it, but it was still quite moist and tender since it was boneless, with almost imperceptible ribbons of fat running throughout (don’t worry, they melted when heated and kept the ham juicy). Overall, we preferred hams with a little more texture, but one that wasn’t rubbery or overly snappy—think, when you cut the ham, it kind of tears rather than cuts cleanly into chunks.
Too Much Fat Was Off-Putting
While the ham from Goldbelly looked shellacked and scrumptious, it had a thick layer of fat on top.Serious Eats / Grace Kelly
While you do want some fat in a ham to keep it moist, two of the hams we tried were so fatty they made us feel ill. The Goldbelly PIT SMOKED BBQ HAM had a fat cap so thick, that it made up half the ham, thus making that half inedible—sad. The Holy Grail Steak Co Mangalitsa Bone-In Smoked Ham also had lots of fat running through it (to be fair, the Mangalitsa pig is labeled the Wagyu of pork), and we physically got queasy after eating larger pieces of it. That said, if you liked the taste and texture of fat, both hams would satisfy that craving.
The Criteria: What to Look for in a Mail-Order Ham
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly
First, find a purveyor who knows what they’re doing in terms of shipping—no one wants to receive a spoiled ham. We liked both whole and spiral-cut hams, though we found the pre-cut ones tended to dry out faster. When it comes to smokiness, take a gander at the smoke times and/or wood chips used for a general idea of how smoky the ham will be (hickory tends to be more intense than, say, apple or cherry wood). Finally, we liked hams that were fatty enough to be moist, but not SO fatty that they were slightly nauseating to eat.
The Best Hams
What we liked: This boneless ham made us rethink our (admittedly snobby) opinion of boneless hams. It sported a beautiful, golden brown sheen on the exterior, and the ham itself was pink, juicy, and tender, thanks to threads of fat running through it (don’t worry, they melted when heated and were what helped keep this ham moist). It had a simple, savory, salty, and, just very ham-like taste. It’s also quite affordable, and the two-and-a-half pound ham fed four people easily, with much ham to spare.
What we didn’t like: Boneless hams look a lot like the hams at a deli, and if you eat it cold, the fat threaded throughout is a little more noticeable. We also found the shipping method questionable—while the ham was frozen, there was no insulation or ice packs in the box.
Price at time of publish: $30 for 2.5 lb ham.
Shipping notes: Comes frozen in a small box without any insulation or ice packs. Weight: 2.5 or 5 lbsSpiral-cut: NoSmoked: YesWood chips: Hickory Glaze included: No
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly
What we liked: This stunner of a ham (yes, not only can a Negroni sblagliato be stunnin’) is big, flavorful, and was one of our tasters’ favorites. It was a little smoky without being overwhelming and had a nice, honey-like sweetness. Since the ham we received was not spiral cut, it was also very moist. The shipping was stellar, too, with plenty of ice packs and insulation (it kept the ham nearly frozen, but it was a really hot day when we received it).
What we didn’t like: It’s expensive, and it’s big, so it’s best for big gatherings and people who really enjoy ham.
Price at time of publish: $93.
Shipping notes: Came in a box with lots of insulation and ice packs still frozen. The ham itself thawed a little bit, but it was also 88°F the day it was delivered. Weight: 9.4 lbs Spiral-cut: No, but the option is available Smoked: YesWood chips: Apple Glaze included: No
Serious Eats / Grace Kelly
What we liked: Sometimes you just wanna eat ham and not saw away at one, ya know? While spiral-cut hams do have a tendency to dry out faster, if you cover one with aluminum foil and cook it low and slow in a water bath, it should emerge juicy and glistening. This smoky ham had a faint touch of sweetness to balance out the savory, and since it was spiral sliced, it was easy to serve.
What we didn’t like: The instructions for heating do not mention tenting the ham in foil, and as a result, our ham came out a tad drier than we would’ve liked—however, the instructions online do mention tenting. It’s also quite expensive (though it is huge).
Price at time of publish: $161.
Shipping notes: The box was a bit dinged up and bashed, but the ham itself was still nestled between four ice packs and arrived frozen.Weight: 18 lbsSpiral-cut: YesSmoked: YesWood chips: Doesn’t sayGlaze included: NoSerious Eats / Grace Kelly
What we liked: What a cute, wee little ham! Weighing a little over two pounds, this is the perfect ham for two, or if you like the idea of making ham sandwiches with freshly sliced slabs. There were no specific instructions for heating, and the Olympia Provisions website notes you can “slice thin for sandwiches, thick for ham steaks or gently reheat and serve whole,” so pick your poison. We tried it cold and heated, and it was really, really good: juicy, tender, slightly smoky, and sweet—overall, a nicely balanced, enjoyable lil’ ham.
What we didn’t like: The ice packs around the ham were completely melted, and the ham was thawed, too. It’s also kinda expensive for a tiny ham.
Price at time of publish: $55.
Shipping notes: The box was in good shape, no issues there. However, the two ice packs around the ham were completely melted, and the ham was thawed too (if it was even frozen in the first place).Weight: 2lbs, 4 ouncesSpiral-cut: NoSmoked: YesWood chips: Apple Glaze included: NoSerious Eats / Grace Kelly
What we liked: This ham looks eerily similar to those beautiful legs of jamon Iberico you see in Spanish tapas bars: It’s big, burnished, and the meat inside is flanked by a meltingly soft, creamy layer of fat. It’s intensely smoky and salty, and is best served thinly sliced (it would be lovely wrapped around some cantaloupe) or lightly seared with some red-eye gravy.
What we didn’t like: It’s a LOT of ham (and it’s not like you can eat big hunks of it) so make room in your refrigerator. And if you’re looking for a ham to bake up for dinner, this isn’t it. The leathery hide is also tough to cut, so don’t use a fragile knife—instead, we recommend using a serrated knife or carving knife to cut through the outer layer.
Price at time of publish: $83.
Shipping notes: The ham arrived in a sturdy box and was wrapped in netting, plastic, and paper. It comes with a little sheet that tells you products can be shipped without refrigeration since they are cured. When opened, best to refrigerate. Can be frozen without any negative effects when they are still tightly wrapped/unopened. Weight: 14.8 lbsSpiral-cut: NoSmoked: YesWood chips: Hickory Glaze included: NoSerious Eats / Grace Kelly
Goldbelly Hams PIT SMOKED BBQ HAM From The Shed BBQ & Blues Joint: While the meat on this ham, which was more akin to an uncured, roasted pork shoulder, was flavorful, there was a truly massive fat cap covering the whole thing. Like, half the meat was just fat, which was disappointing and a little gross. The barbecue sauce that was included was delicious, though (smoky, sweet, and tangy). Harry and David Spiral-Sliced Ham 7.5-8.5 lbs: While this was an overall fine ham, it was a little one-note in flavor; it just kinda tasted like roasted pork loin. The glaze, which smelled overpoweringly of spices with a faint whiff of apple cider, didn’t really permeate the ham. It also arrived thawed out, which was a little concerning. Rastelli’s Boneless Carving Ham With Glaze: This ham was shaped more like a brisket than a ham, and the texture—snappy, chewy, and grainy—was offputting in our taste tests. That said, the glaze was quite tasty, with a balanced, sweet, and spiced flavor. Holy Grail Steak Co Mangalitsa Bone-In Smoked Ham: This ham was a tough one since we kind of liked the simple, porky flavor, but really disliked the amount of fat running through it. It was so fatty that it left icebergs of fat in the water bath, and we felt a little bit queasy after eating it.
What is spiral-cut ham?
Spiral-cut ham has been cut into concentric circles, making it easy to peel off slabs of meat. It tends to dry out faster than uncut ham.
How many pounds of ham do you need per person?
We suggest estimating 1/2 pound ham per person when buying a bone-in ham, and about 1/3 pound per person for a boneless ham.
What is the best ham for Christmas?
It really depends on what you like and how many people you’re serving! We liked both whole and spiral-cut hams and didn’t have a preference for bone-in or boneless. Look for a ham that aligns with how much smokiness you like (hickory tends to be more intense than apple or cherry wood chips), and how much fat you like (if it says it’s the Wagyu of pork, then it will be fatty).
Why We’re the Experts
Grace Kelly is the associate commerce editor at Serious Eats. Prior to this, she tested equipment and ingredients for America’s Test Kitchen. She’s worked as a journalist and has done stints as a cook and bartender. She has written dozens of reviews and articles for Serious Eats, including petty knives, tinned fish, fish spatulas, and tortilla presses, among others. For this review of mail-order hams, we ordered, inspected, prepared, and tasted nine hams.