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A spiral ham is a pre-cooked, pre-cut ham meant to simplify the process of preparing and serving ham as much as possible for the home cook. Butchers create spiral hams by making a continuous, even cut with a machine all the way around the ham. Most spiral hams are bone-in, but some butchers may sell boneless versions, as well.
Typically, butchers begin making a ham by selecting a cut of meat from the hind thigh of an adult pig. Some butchers may use a cut from the shoulder of the front leg — creating a variation known as a "picnic ham" — but this cut is less common when preparing spiral ham. A hind cut of pork always initially contains a center leg bone. Leaving the bone in makes home preparation and cutting more difficult, but since the spiraling process simplifies cutting, butchers often leave this bone in for spiral hams. Many cooks believe that bone-in hams have more flavor than boneless hams.
After obtaining a good cut of meat, the butcher fully cooks the ham by baking, curing, or smoking it. The fully cooked ham is then locked onto a rotating base. This mechanical base spins the ham around in circles while moving downward. Meanwhile, a stationary blade cuts into the side of the ham, slicing it in a spiral pattern. This process creates even slices, usually measuring roughly 0.375 inch (about 9.525 millimeters) in thickness per slice.
Since the slices are not completely cut off, a spiral ham holds its overall shape. The consumer buys the ham whole, prepares it as desired, and finishes cutting off the pre-sliced sections when serving it. A well-prepared spiral ham sold by an expert butcher or reputable manufacturer makes cutting and serving equally sized slices almost effortless, even with bone-in hams.
Consumers looking to purchase a spiral ham should select a bright pink ham with uniform color throughout. Marbling indicates how much fat a ham contains, and too much fat will negatively influence the texture and taste of the ham. High quality spiral hams should have clear, even slices that the consumer can identify through a transparent wrapping.
Spiral hams are usually fully cooked, which means that they can be eaten as is without presenting any health hazard. Most consumers prefer to warm them before eating, however, and many also prefer to prepare a glaze for the ham prior to reheating it. Many simple ham glazes combine brown sugar with some sort of fruit juice, such as pineapple or orange juice. Others combine brown sugar and other sweeteners, like honey or maple syrup. Thin glazes tend to seep in between slices on a spiral ham, and depending on the glaze used, this pre-sliced ham may soak in the flavors of the glaze more thoroughly than unsliced hams typically do.
@Pippinwhite -- I know what you mean about a spiral slice being so much easier. You can save a little money if your grocery store has a decent meat department. They can sometimes spiral slice it right there in the store, and you can take it home and cook it. Makes it easy, and much cheaper.
My particular favorite glaze is stone ground mustard and brown sugar. It gives the ham a great flavor and a beautifully brown crust. Some spiral sliced hams come with a glaze mix, but they're not always that good. I end up having to tinker with the glaze until it's like I want it.
My husband love ham above all things, and we usually get a spiral sliced one for Christmas. They cost a little more, but they really are worth it. I love it because it's so easy to slice, and because it's pre-sliced, it makes it much easier to get all the ham off the bone for sandwiches and soup later on.
You definitely pay for the privilege, because it can add $10 or $12 to the cost of the ham, but it's so much easier to deal with on a holiday, I'm willing to spend the extra money because I have so much to do anyway, and I'd just rather not have to fool with carving a ham.