According to an informational bulletin posted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ERS1, pork products are the third most popular meat product purchased by the average American consumer. By extension, this makes ham among the most frequently eaten processed meat foodstuff in most people’s diets.
The term ham, by definition, does not apply to all cuts of pork meat but instead specifically refers to a cut of meat taken from the leg or haunches of a pig. Because of this, it is not uncommon for home chefs and restaurants to purchase whole pig legs, necessitating storage in order to prevent wastage.
Yes, it is an excellent idea to freeze ham if you require it to still be at its best quality for a long period of time. However, keep in mind that while ham holds up to the effects of freezing quite well, it will still take some time to defrost it and as such choosing to freeze ham is a strategic decision that requires some level of planning.
What is Needed to Freeze Ham?
In order to freeze your ham, several objects will be required in order to help control factors that may accelerate the degradation of quality in the meat.
These are a roll of aluminum foil, a roll of plastic cling wrap, and a freezer bag or resealable plastic pouch large enough to contain the entirety of the ham.
Keep in mind that freezing a whole intact ham is more difficult than simply freezing slices of the meat, and as such it is advisable to first slice your ham into more manageable proportions prior to freezing.
How to Freeze Ham
First, if the ham has been cooked recently, allow it to cool to room temperature so no ice crystals are formed by the steam emitting from it. Otherwise, ensure that the ham or ham slices are as dry as possible.
Begin by taking your plastic cling wrap and encasing the ham or ham slices as tightly as possible within it, alternating the directions of each sheet so as to cover any areas of the ham you may have missed.
After several sheets of cling wrap have been swaddled around the ham, encase it once more in aluminum foil. This will both increase the speed at which the ham freezes or defrosts as well as help prevent freezer-burn that may occur.
Now covered in layers of plastic and aluminum foil, store the ham or ham slices once more in your resealable plastic bag or freezer bag. Push out as much air as possible from the bag, or vacuum seal it within if you have the equipment at hand.
Place the bag of ham in the freezer for up to six months, though a loss in texture, color or flavor may occur before this point in time depending on the sort of ham you are storing.
How to Thaw Frozen Ham
Thawing ham will take some time if you have elected to freeze it in its whole form, as sliced ham can be defrosted very quickly simply by leaving it in a bowl of room temperature water.
However, if your ham is still intact, it will take quite a long period of time depending on exactly how large your particular frozen ham is.
In order to do so, first remove the freezer bag and aluminum foil from around the ham. Inspect it for any signs of spoilage or loss of quality, such as the formation of mold or a distinct dryness in its surface texture.
After ascertaining that your ham is still safe to eat, place it in the driest section of your refrigerator, far from any smelly foodstuffs that may cause the meat to absorb their odors, such as onions or fermented foods.
As a general rule, for every pound of ham frozen, approximately six hours must be allotted in order to defrost it completely. This equates to roughly an entire day for a four-pound ham.
How to Thaw Frozen Ham in the Microwave
However, should you require the ham in a more immediate capacity, it is entirely possible to defrost the ham by placing it in a microwave, so long as your microwave is sufficiently large enough.
Keep in mind that though microwave defrosting is far faster than thawing it in the traditional way, some loss of quality will occur.
Ensure that no traces of aluminum foil are present on the ham before placing it in a microwave safe plate and microwaving it at the lowest possible setting for approximately five minutes per pound, or until the ham’s texture is no longer hard to the touch.
How Long Does Raw Ham Last at Room Temperature?
Like most organic foodstuffs, leaving ham in its uncooked form out on your counter-top or other room temperature area is a poor way to preserve it.
Being a food rich in protein, ham is a prime target for colonization by bacteria and fungi, which will quickly produce harmful toxins and chemical by-products as they consume the ham at a microscopic level.
Apart from the effects of microbial life, opportunistic insects will be attracted by the scent of meat and may even lay eggs along the surface of the meat.
Though the exact length of time that raw ham remains safe to eat at room temperature is highly variable depending on a multitude of extrinsic factors, a general rule is that within two hours, microbial life will have begun to flourish on and inside your ham, and as such should be thrown away2.
How Long Does Cooked Ham Last at Room Temperature?
When food is cooked to sufficiently high temperatures, most harmful forms of bacteria and fungi are killed as the heat becomes intolerable for the majority of life forms.
However, as the ham begins to cool off once it has been removed from the stove, any surviving microbes or even new cultures will begin to propagate once more. This is largely unavoidable without the usage of proper storage procedures.
Even if bacteria and fungi have still not colonized the ham, factors such as oxidation and high humidity can alter the general quality of your ham, leaching its color and flavor over time.
Much like it were still uncooked, ham that has already cooled off from cooking will only last for as long as two hours when exposed to the open air and room temperatures. It is important to either consume the cooked ham immediately after cooking or to otherwise store it in some way.
Can Cured or Dried Ham be Kept at Room Temperature?
Curing ham is the process of utilizing salt’s hydrophilic properties in order to preserve the meat and age it, maturing its flavor and providing an altered experience when utilized as a dish.
As the moisture is pulled from the ham by salt or other hydrophilic compounds, it becomes difficult to colonize or otherwise inhabitable for most forms of microbiological life, essentially preserving it without the need for equipment like refrigerators or freezers. This is not to say, however, that cured meats do not have storage requirements of their own3.
So long as the “crust” of the ham is undamaged and the ham itself has remained intact all throughout the curing process, it should last for up to an entire year in a room-temperature pantry.
Keep in mind that cured meats must not be exposed to moisture in order to avoid rehydrating them and triggering the propagation of bacteria and fungi.
Can Ham be Refrigerated?
A far better alternative to simply leaving your ham on the counter-top, refrigerating ham is an excellent way to ensure that it does not spoil as quickly as it would at room temperatures.
Whether cured, cooked or otherwise raw, refrigerating ham requires several steps to be taken in order to extend its shelf-life for as long as possible as well as to prevent contamination of other foods in your fridge.
If you have purchased the ham commercially, it is best to keep it in its original packaging so long as you have not yet opened it. This air-tight packaging will both prevent the air-flow and humidity of your fridge from affecting the ham’s quality as well as keep any invading microbes out.
However, should you have already opened the packaging or otherwise purchased the ham in packaging unsuitable for storage, it is important to wrap the meat in several layers of plastic cling film. Ensure that you wrap the film in alternating directions so as to cover any open areas you may have missed.
Once wrapped properly, encase the ham in another layer of aluminum foil. This will help prevent condensation from forming on the surface of the ham, of which will encourage bacterial and fungal growth.
Store the now aluminum-wrapped ham in the driest area of your refrigerator for up to one week after its best-by date or until signs of spoilage present themselves.
1. Unknown Author. (N.D.) “Food Availability per Capita” U.S. Department of Agriculture ERS http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-availability-(per-capita)-data-system.aspx
2. Unknown Author. (N.D.) “Ham Handling, Safety & Storage” recipetips.com https://www.recipetips.com/kitchen-tips/t–745/ham-handling-safety-storage.asp
3. Nummer, Brian. (May 2002) “Historical Origins of Food Preservation.” University of Georgia, National Center for Home Food Preservation.
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