Left, country ham (sweet); right, city ham (salty).Photo: Davies + Starr

The Christmas ham, that glazed, glistening culinary symbol of the holiday, has a kind of Burl Ives quality to it, which only raises the stakes for holiday cooks to get it just right.

Ham, technically speaking, is the upper portion of the hind leg of the pig. There are two basic types of ham: city ham and country ham. City hams, also known as wet-cured, are by far the most common hams, the type typically sold in supermarkets. City hams are cured in a solution of salt, water, preservatives (usually including nitrites and nitrates), and various sweet or savory flavorings. Many city hams are also smoked over hardwoods, such as hickory or maple. What you want in a city ham is a whole or half ham, with the bone in. Beyond that, which city ham you choose is a matter of taste. Kurowycky Meat Products, founded by current proprietor Jerry Kurowycky’s grandfather in 1955, cures and smokes its own hams in the East Village. Their hams are generally excellent, with a sweet, well-rounded smoky flavor. Heritage Foods USA, best known for its native-breed turkeys, sells hams made from Berkshire pigs, an English breed. Unlike most mass-produced pigs, which have had much of their fat bred out of them, Berkshires have a healthy marbling of fat that gives the hams they yield a rich, meaty texture; cherry, apple, and hickory smoking adds flavor. Niman Ranch sells hams preserved without nitrites; they won’t keep as long as other hams, but their mild and slightly salty flavor compares favorably. Niman’s pigs are also raised in an open pasture, which causes them to develop more fat to protect against the cold and makes their ham extra-moist and flavorful. Whole city hams come in sizes ranging from fifteen to seventeen pounds and cost from $2 to $6 per pound (Heritage and Niman hams cost more).

Country hams, also known as dry-cured hams, date to the days before refrigeration, when salting was the only means of preservation. Instead of being wet-cured, country hams are rubbed with a layer of salt and other ingredients and hung to cure for several months. The process is similar to that used for prosciutto. American country hams are usually smoked as well, to add flavor. Country hams can be eaten raw, like prosciutto, but Americans typically prefer them cooked. Cooking a country ham is a chore. Mold that forms on the ham’s surface during the curing process has to be scrubbed off, then the ham has to be soaked for several days, with several changes of water, to release some salt. Finally, the ham has to be boiled or baked. The result can be worth the wait: Country hams have a deep, rich, and intensely salty flavor that hamophiles swear by. Unlike city ham, country ham is best served in small thin slices, traditionally on biscuits—large, thick slices are generally too salty. If you prefer a somewhat less salty country ham, look for one that’s been aged for a relatively short time—the longer the ham is cured, the more salty and intense its flavor. Cooked country hams can be mail-ordered if you don’t want to cook them yourself. A Kentucky outfit called Colonel Bill Newsom’s Country Hams makes a dark-red, salty, deeply flavorful ham, using a recipe from the 1700s. Country hams range in size from fifteen to eighteen pounds and typically cost from $2 to $5 per pound (premium hams like Newsom’s cost more).

When buying a city ham, keep the following terms in mind. If the ham is marked plain “ham,” it means no water has been added. Ham “with natural juices” has 7 to 8 percent water added, ham with “water added” has up to 10 percent extra water, and “ham and water product” may contain any amount of water (as the amount of water increases, the quality of the ham decreases). “Organic,” “free-range,” and related terms generally haven’t come to the ham market yet (though Heritage and Niman’s products have some of those qualities). When looking for a city ham, look for a slight layer of fat around the outside. The fat draws off the salt—the more fat, the less salty the ham. When buying a country ham, buy from a reputable producer.

Where to Buy
Commercial city hams are available at local supermarkets. Kurowycky Meat Products sells high-quality bone-in artisanal city hams (whole and half bone-in city hams, $5.39 per pound; 124 First Ave., at 7th St.; 212-477-0344). Heritage Berkshire city hams are sold at Fairway (various locations) and online at heritagefoodsusa.com (about $10 per pound). Niman Ranch nitrite-free boneless hams are available at Dean & DeLuca or online at nimanranch.com (six-to-seven-pound nitrite-free boneless half-ham, $49.95). Colonel Bill Newsom’s Country Hams are available via mail order (sixteen-to-eighteen-pound bone-in raw ham, $4.19 per pound; sixteen-to-eighteen-pound whole bone-in cooked ham, $85 to $100; 270-365-2482 or newsomscountryham.com).

More Holiday Shopping Tips:
The Fanatic’s Grocery List: How To Tell A Turkey from A Turkey

And See Also:
The Feasts: Holiday Banquets to the Nth Degree