Demystifying the Fat Side of Ham: Your Guide to Choosing and Cooking This Classic Meat

For generations ham has been a cherished centerpiece of holiday meals and Sunday dinners. Its rich smoky flavor paired with a tender, juicy texture makes it a perennial favorite. But to get the best results when cooking ham at home, it helps to understand the nuances of this classic meat. One key factor is recognizing which side is the fattiest.

The Two Halves of a Ham

Let’s start with some ham anatomy. A full, bone-in ham is divided into two main sections – the butt end and the shank end.

The butt end also known as the rump half comes from higher up on the hog’s leg near the hip. It contains a large, T-shaped leg bone. Being closer to the loin, it tends to be meatier and more tender.

The shank end comes from farther down the leg near the hock. It contains a single long thigh bone and tends to be tougher with more connective tissue.

So when it comes to choosing between butt end and shank end, opt for the butt for a fattier, juicier cut.

Where’s the Fattest Part?

The butt end contains the fattiest portion of meat. That’s because it comes from higher up on the leg, closest to the pork shoulder, which carries more marbled fat.

More specifically, the fattest part of the ham is the outside curve opposite the exposed bone This section, known as the fat cap, is laced with creamy white fat that bastes the meat as it cooks

The shank end certainly has fat too, but it’s leaner overall. The fat content decreases as you move down the leg away from the shoulder.

So for maximum flavor and tenderness, choose a ham where the butt end faces up when positioned in the roasting pan. That places the fatty side on top.

To Score or Not to Score?

Scoring the fat cap before cooking is a technique many cooks swear by. Using a sharp knife, you cut slits in a diamond pattern without cutting all the way through to the meat.

The theory is that scoring helps the fat render and baste the ham as it cooks. But it also allows seasoning and glaze to penetrate deeper into the meat.

However, scoring isn’t essential. The fat will melt and moisten the ham even without slits. If skipping the scoring step, just pat the seasoning in thoroughly rather than only coating the surface.

Putting the Fat Side Up

Now that you know which side is fattiest, should you cook the ham fat side up or down? There are pros and cons to each approach.

Fat Side Up

  • Allows fat to melt and baste ham as it cooks
  • Creates browned, caramelized fat cap
  • Prevents drying out

Fat Side Down

  • Allows seasonings and glaze to stick better
  • Avoids fat washing off those flavors
  • Produces more even browning

Many cooks opt to start fat side up, then flip it halfway through cooking. This takes advantage of the basting effect while also browning the bottom.

Monitoring Temperature

An accurate meat thermometer is vital for perfect ham. Different types of ham require different finished temperatures:

  • Fresh ham (uncooked) – 160°F
  • Cooked ham (cured & smoked) – 140°F

For safety, fresh ham should hit 155°F before resting. The temp will climb to 160°F as it rests. Cooked hams should hit 135°F then climb to 140°F during rest time.

Resting for at least 10-15 minutes allows juices to redistribute through the meat before slicing. Monitoring the internal temp prevents both undercooking and drying out.

Glazing for Flavor and Appearance

A sweet, sticky glaze is a hallmark of holiday hams. Brushing on a glaze during the last 30-45 minutes helps form an appetizing lacquered crust.

When glazing, start with fat side up to allow glaze to adhere. Then flip fat side down to caramelize the glaze.

Apply glaze lightly and often, brushing a new layer every 10-15 minutes. This builds flavor without burning the sugar.

For best results, leave a 1⁄4 inch layer of fat intact when glazing. Trimming the fat entirely can cause the meat to dry out.

Roasting Your Ham to Perfection

Now that you understand the nuances of the fat side, it’s time to roast your ham using that knowledge. Here are some best practices:

  • Let the ham come to room temp before roasting.
  • Place fatty side up in a shallow roasting pan.
  • Score fat cap if desired, then coat with seasoning.
  • Add 1 cup of liquid such as water, juice or cola to the pan.
  • Cover tightly with foil and roast at 325°F.
  • Uncover for the last 45 minutes for glazing.
  • Flip ham fat side down while glazing to caramelize.
  • Roast until it reaches the target internal temp.

With the right cut, preparation, and cooking method, your ham will turn out juicy, glistening and full of flavor. Taking time to understand the fat side ensures roast ham success.

Now get ready to enjoy delicious ham meals all season long. Keep reading for amazing ham recipe ideas beyond the holiday table.

Craveable Recipes for Leftover Ham

Holiday hams are so large, you’re guaranteed tasty leftovers. Avoid boredom with these creative ways to use ham:

Breakfast Fare

  • Ham, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches
  • Ham and Swiss omelets
  • Ham hash with potatoes and veggies


  • Ham roll-ups with cream cheese and pickles
  • Deviled eggs with bits of diced ham
  • Ham flatbread with fig jam and arugula

Soups & Salads

  • Ham and potato soup
  • Ham and white bean salad
  • Ham chopped salad with vinaigrette


  • Ham fried rice or stir fry
  • Ham, apple and brie pizza or flatbread
  • Pasta carbonara with ham and peas


  • Glazed ham chunks with roasted Brussels sprouts
  • Cheesy ham and broccoli gratin
  • Scalloped potatoes and ham

With a little creativity, leftover ham can be reinvented into all sorts of mouthwatering dishes beyond sandwiches. Keep these recipes in mind the next time you have an abundance of this tasty meat.

Tips for Buying Ham

Now that you feel confident cooking ham at home, here are some tips for picking the perfect ham at the market:

  • Look for artisanal hams cured naturally without nitrites.
  • Seek out heirloom breeds like Berkshire or Red Wattle for richness.
  • For spiral cut hams, check the slice width and appearance.
  • Read the ingredients list and nutrition facts when comparing.
  • Opt for uncured, low-sodium hams if health is a priority.
  • For smaller households, buy a half bone-in ham rather than a whole.
  • Estimate 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 pound of ham per person.

With so many varieties of ham available today, you can find one that perfectly suits your preferences. Whether baked gleaming with a sweet glaze or simply roasted and carved, ham remains a cherished tradition for holidays, gatherings, and Sunday suppers.

Huge Mistakes Everyone Makes When Cooking Ham


What part of the ham is the fat side?

There are two cuts of ham you can buy: Shank end – this cut is less tender, fattier and easier to carve with one single bone. Butt end (sirloin end) – this cut is more tender, less fat and harder to carve with the aitchbone still intact.

Which side of ham goes down?

Tips for Making the Best Baked Ham Cook it cut-side down: Place the ham cut-side down in your pan to prevent it from drying out while baking. Cover it while cooking: Help the meat retain moisture by covering the ham or pan with aluminum foil before putting it in the oven.

Do you cook a ham fat side up or fat side down?

Remove all packaging materials and place ham on its side, fat side up, on rack in shallow roasting pan; cover loosely with aluminum foil. 2. Heat approximately 15 to 20 minutes per pound until heated through.

Should I remove fat from ham?

You can choose to leave it on or remove it – really it’s a personal preference. You will notice that right underneath the rind is a beautiful layer of fat. DON’T TRIM THIS FAT AWAY for cooking!

What is the fat side of a ham?

So, the answer to our question today is that that ham’s fat side is the butt end. The fat lends the meat a rich flavour and moist texture and its importance should not be underestimated. This part of the ham also sometimes still contains its T-shaped bone, which can be challenging to carve out. Ask your butcher to remove it for you if you like.

Which side should a ham be cooked on?

After trimming the skin and some of the fat, place the ham on a rack in a shallow baking pan with fat side up. Half hams should be placed with cut side down. Add 1/4 inch of water to the bottom of the roasting pan. When cooking a ham which side is up? Whole hams should be cooked fat-side up. Cover pan tightly with aluminum foil.

Should a ham be cooked fat side up or down?

Remove all packaging materials and place ham in a shallow roasting pan. Quarter and half hams should be cooked flat/face-side down. Whole hams should be cooked fat-side up. Do you cook a ham fat side up or down?

How to cook a ham?

We suggest boiling the ham with the fat side up. Add enough liquid to three-quarter cover the meat. Simmer the ham slowly and for a few hours in the liquid. This way, the fat will melt and run down the meat, moistening it as it cooks. 6. After boiling, the cooking liquid is discarded and the ham is rubbed with a marinade.

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