Part of the fun of a lavish meal is the sight of all those delicious things gathered together on your table or at least on a counter nearby. The side dishes make an aromatic and colorful setting for the deep gold hues of a perfectly roasted bird or the glossiness of a well-glazed ham. Before you get to that point there's a lot of prep work to be done, most importantly thawing your star ingredient so it's ready to cook.
The Best Way to Defrost a Ham
The best and safest way to thaw your ham is in your refrigerator. It's the slowest method, but as long as your refrigerator is working properly, your ham should stay at a food-safe temperature while it thaws. You can find a ham thawing chart if you look on the internet, but the numbers are pretty easy to remember.
You need about 24 hours for every 5 pounds your ham weighs. Portioned hams from the supermarket usually check in at 3 to 4 pounds or 6 to 8 pounds, and holiday-sized hams can be twice that.
Put your ham in a shallow pan to catch any drips that might leak as it thaws, and put it in the bottom of your fridge. Thawing takes a bit less than a day for a 3- to 4-pound ham and a bit more than a day for a 4- to 6-pound ham or up to three days for a big holiday-sized ham. Once it's fully thawed, you can keep it safely in your fridge for another three or four days or go ahead and cook it however you please.
The Cold Water Method
If you don't have that kind of time or just plain didn't remember in time, you can speed things up by thawing in cold water. If your ham is still vacuum-packed from the factory, you can thaw it just like that. If it's on a foam tray and wrapped in plastic, you should probably unwrap it and put it into an airtight, zipper-style bag. Put the ham in a large, clean pot or bowl or a well-scrubbed sink and cover it completely with cold water from your tap.
Thawing this way takes a half hour for every pound of weight, so if you have a 4-pound ham you'd need about two hours, and for a 6-pound ham you'd need three. You also have to change the water every 30 minutes to keep it cool enough to discourage bacteria from growing. Once your ham is thawed, you should cook it right away because the outer parts of the ham will be in the food safety danger zone by that time.
The Microwave Method
If you're really stressed for time, you can thaw a ham using your microwave's defrost function. This isn't ideal because some parts of the ham will get quite hot while other parts stay frozen, which means some parts of your finished ham might be dry and overcooked. It's best to only use this method with small and boneless hams, which will thaw a little more evenly. A microwave-thawed ham has to be cooked right away if it's going to stay food safe.
Don't Thaw It at All
If you forgot to allow for thawing time, you're usually better off cooking your ham from frozen than you are thawing it in the microwave. You'll just have to start earlier in the day because cooking from frozen can increase your cooking time by up to 50 percent. A 5-pound ham might normally take 18 to 20 minutes per pound, for example, or about an hour and 40 minutes. Cooking from frozen might add an hour to your cooking time in that case. At the end of the day, it's still a pretty reasonable cooking time.
How Not to Do It
There are two ways you should never thaw. First and most importantly, never defrost a ham at room temperature. By the time the middle is thawed, the outer parts of your ham – which is where you'll find bacteria – will have been in the food safety danger zone for hours. If there are any bacteria on your ham, they'll have plenty of opportunity to wake up and feel frisky.
Another definite no-no is cooking your frozen ham in a Crock-Pot or other slow cooker. The gentle heat of a slow cooker takes too long to bring the ham up to a food-safe temperature, so if there are bacteria on your ham, you aren't just letting them survive, you're encouraging and pampering them with a cozy nursery. The heat will eventually kill most but not all of the bacteria, and some bugs leave nasty, heat-stable toxins behind, so your chances of making someone sick are uncomfortably high.