A good ham brings a lot to the table, so to speak. It's simple enough for cooks at any skill level to prepare, and it's also suitable to serve to company. More importantly, it's got flavor to spare and makes a base for many great meals. When it's frozen and thawed, though, ham can be disappointingly spongy and watery. Once you know why this happens, you'll also know how to avoid it.
Why Foods Get Watery When Frozen
A lot of foods release some excess moisture after they've been frozen and then thawed. You'll see it with meats, fruits and high-moisture vegetables as well. The reason is very simple: Water expands when it freezes.
In your ice cube tray, this just makes the cubes easier to pop out. In food, though, that water is usually trapped inside the cell walls of a piece of meat or produce. When the food is frozen, the natural moisture inside the cell walls turns to ice, expands and often ruptures the cell walls. When you thaw the food, the moisture from those ruptured cells leaks out, just as it would from a dropped carton of milk.
The Issue of Watery Ham
Any meat can be watery when thawed, but ham is one of the more problematic options. That's because hams vary widely in their water content, and of course the more water it has to start with, the more moisture it can lose after it's frozen and thawed.
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Dry-cured hams, including American "country hams" and European prosciutto and jamon Iberico, contain very little moisture because a lot of it is removed during the curing process.
Most other hams are wet-cured in brine, and contain varying amounts of water. If it's labeled simply as "ham," it's allowed some water but has to be at least 20.5 percent protein in the lean portions. "Ham with natural juices" is wetter, but at least 18.5 percent is protein. "Ham with water" contains more moisture but at least 17.5 percent protein, and "ham and water products" – the wettest of all – can be up to 25 percent moisture, and below 17 percent protein.
Clearly, if you want your ham to not be soggy when it's frozen and thawed, it helps to read the labels and start with the lowest water content.
What's the Best Cut of Ham?
If you're shopping for the best possible cut of ham to put in your freezer, choosing a lower-moisture ham product is just the first trick in your arsenal. There are several more.
First, choose your cut wisely. Whole hams are inconveniently large, so they're usually cut into "butt" and "shank" portions, which are the upper and lower part of the ham respectively. The shank is denser and contains less moisture, so it's better for freezing. Smaller cuts of ham will usually have a label telling you whether they're taken from the shank or butt.
Packaging and Freezing Methods Matter
If possible, buy a vacuum packed ham that's still sealed from the packing plant, as opposed to one that's been cut and wrapped at the store. Meat packers love vacuum-sealing meats because keeping oxygen away from the ham helps preserve its fresh flavor. Tight vacuum sealing also limits what packers call "purge," the leaking of juices from the meat into the packaging.
If you know in advance that you want to freeze your ham for later use, try to buy one that's been frozen at the factory. Freezing quickly keeps the ice crystals small, which means they cause less damage to the ham's cell walls, and a commercial blast freezer does that much better than your home freezer. If you do freeze at home, a standalone deep freeze works better than the smaller freezer on your fridge.
Freezer Storage Life
You can find a helpful ham storage chart on the USDA's website and many other places, listing appropriate shelf life recommendations for various kinds of ham and ham products. For most hams, that suggested storage life is just 1 or 2 months.
It's important to know that this is a quality-based recommendation and not at all related to food safety. A ham in the freezer will stay food safe indefinitely, though it will eventually become freezer burnt or begin to lose its flavor. A vacuum packed ham will keep its quality better than one that's been rewrapped at the store or at home because it's airtight and it's the contact with oxygen that causes freezer burn.
If your ham should be freezer burnt, you can simply cut away the dried, discolored surface and prepare the unaffected portion of the ham normally.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.