How to handle holiday ham

How to handle holiday ham

One of the joys of celebrating the holidays at my grandparents’ house was simply opening the door to the enticing aroma of ham baking in the oven and homemade rolls cooling on the counter.

Ham was a favorite dish at family gatherings. Even on Thanksgiving, ham accompanied the turkey because my grandmother was never one to prepare a small meal. There needed to be leftovers for everyone to take home.

I still enjoy ham at the holidays, not only for its taste, but also the variety of ways leftovers can be used in sandwiches, soups, breakfast casseroles, quiches, pasta dishes and potato dishes.

Hams are served during the winter holidays more than any other time of year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s easy to prepare and serve but must be handled in a way to prevent food-borne illness. Don’t leave it sitting out at room temperature too long and make sure to store it properly.

USDA’s Food and Safety and Inspection Service recommends the following tips to keep guests and hosts safe at holiday gatherings:

Buying a ham

Meat from the hind leg of a hog is called ham. Temperatures and timing are important when considering buying one.

—Forty degrees is the safe temperature when buying refrigerated hams. Make sure when you buy any type of perishable ham that it is kept refrigerated at 40 F or below.

—Two is the safe time. Take perishable ham home and refrigerate it within two hours. Bacteria grow rapidly in the temperature danger zone between 40 F and 140 F.

—Hot is the safe condition. When picking up a hot, cooked ham at a store or restaurant, keep it hot — at least 140 F. Take it home and keep it at this temperature until serving. If you are serving it later, divide portions into shallow containers or packages and refrigerate it to eat cold or reheat later to 165 F.

—Canned hams are safe on the shelf as are dry country hams.

Storing a ham

Some people believe that because most hams are “cured,” they can be safely refrigerated longer than other types of meat.

—While some hams do have a longer shelf life than raw poultry, ground meats and raw meat, ham does not stay safe forever.

—Dates on packages of ham are “purchase” dates, not safe storage time in home refrigerators — unless the ham is vacuum sealed at a USDA-inspected plant.

—You can store perishable ham safely, according to these time limits: uncooked ham, fully cooked spiral-sliced or unsliced ham, three to five days, and ham after home cooking, three to four days. For more storage times, go to and type in ham storage.

—Ham of any kind may be frozen indefinitely; however, for best quality, use frozen ham in one to two months.

—A whole, uncut country ham can be stored safely at room temperature for up to one year. The ham is safe after one year, but the quality may suffer.

—An unopened, shelf-stable, canned ham may be stored at room temperature for two years.

Cooking a ham

Cook all raw fresh ham and ready-to-eat ham to a minimum internal temperature of 145 F as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source.

—Set the oven temperature to 325 F.

–To see estimated cooking times, go to and type in ham cooking times to find a cooking chart.

—For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming.

—For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook meat to higher temperatures.

—Reheat cooked hams packaged in USDA-inspected plants to 140 F and all others to 165 F.

Ask Karen, the virtual food-safety representative, is available 24/7 at Weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is available at 1-888-MPHotline (674-6854) or via live chat at

Melinda Hill is an OSU Extension family and consumer sciences educator based in Wayne County and may be called at 330-264-8722.

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