ham dinner

Ham it Up This Easter

Last Updated on April 13, 2020

Whether you celebrate Easter as a religious holiday or a secular one that welcomes spring, there’s typically a feast involved, often featuring a large hunk of meat.

Worldwide, lamb (from sheep one year or younger) is traditionally eaten in the spring as a celebration of the start of the growing season—and in many cultures, lamb takes the ceremonial center of the table on Easter Sunday.

But in the US, where lamb consumption is much lower than in other parts of the world, ham reigns as the feast meat of choice for spring celebrations (and winter holidays, too). Ham is pork from a pig’s hind leg that’s been salt-cured (either with a rub or in a brine).

Some of the most famous hams from around the world are simply salt-cured—like Italian Prosciutto di Parma or Serrano ham from Spain—and aged for up to two years. This style of ham is sliced super-thin and served raw, often as part of a charcuterie or cheese plate.

closeup of some delicious slices of spanish serrano ham

Country hams in the U.S., like those from Smithfield in Virginia, are salt-cured and smoked over the course of a year, resulting in meat with deep, salty flavor. Because of the assertive flavor profile, “it’s best to use it not as a center-of-the-plate item, but in appetizers and side dishes, writes cookbook author Bruce Aidells in his 2004 Complete Book of Pork.

But the hams you’re most likely to see on your holiday table have been brined, meaning salt is dissolved in water (along with other spices and aromatics) and the meat is submerged in the briny liquid. Modern hams are usually brine-injected, then often smoked and cooked—leaving home cooks with little to do beyond glaze, heat, and carve the meat. For a better-tasting piece of meat, Aidells recommends seeking out bone-in hams that aren’t pre-cut or pre-glazed.

Hams take well to fruity flavors, so if you’re thinking about a glaze, try apricot-mustard or even something as simple as maple syrup and apple cider vinegar whisked together.

ham dinner

If ham has a place on your menu this year, the next question is—what else are you serving? Making ham the centerpiece keeps effort to a minimum—this year, maybe run with that theme and keep the sides and dessert super-simple. Here are some menu ideas for a ham-centric Easter feast:

  • Set up a make-your-own ham sandwich situation with these Parker House rolls, a few interesting cheeses and mustards, and some deviled eggs and some roasted asparagus to go alongside.
  • Make a gratin—you could do a classic potato or switch it up with a zucchini-leek variation and a green salad dressed with mustard vinaigrette.

  • Pair the ham with roasted beets and carrots that get drizzled with mint pesto (or serve this carrot-parsley salad for a tart counterpoint to the rich meat). Start this meal with a crudite platter featuring sliced fennel and blanched green vegetables like sugar snap peas and asparagus; finish it with a tart, refreshing dessert like lemon tart or simple sugar cookies and sorbet.

Keep in mind – whole hams weigh up to 20 pounds, so if you’re not hosting a crowd this year, either go with a half-ham, or plan for loads of leftovers. Either way, it’s good to have a reason to ham it up for your spring feast.

Leigh Belanger is a writer, editor, and content strategist. Her 2018 cookbook, My Kitchen Chalkboard, features a year of seasonal family dinners with menu ideas and meal planning tips to help make home cooking easier.