Ham it up easy at dinnertime

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Cooks have never had it so easy when it comes to hamming it up at dinnertime. We usually think of the hind leg of a hog when we think of ham. If the pork comes from the front leg of a hog, it will be labeled "pork shoulder picnic." In recent years, turkey producers have gotten into the ham picture. Turkey ham must be made from turkey thigh meat. Whatever the source, hams come in several forms. Hams may be fresh, cured or cured and smoked. They are either ready to eat or must be cooked before serving.

The color of cured ham is usually deep rose or pink. Fresh ham that is not cured has the pale pink or beige color of a fresh pork roast. Country hams and prosciutto, which are dry cured, range in color from pink to mahogany.

Both vacuum-packed fully cooked and canned hams can be eaten cold just as they come from their packaging. However, if you want to reheat these fully cooked hams, set the oven no lower than 325 degrees, and heat to an internal temperature of 140 degrees as measured with a meat thermometer. For fully cooked ham that has been repackaged in any other location outside the plant or for leftover fully cooked ham, heat to 165 degrees.

Cook-before-eating hams must reach 160 degrees to be safely cooked before serving. Hams can also be safely cooked in a microwave oven, other countertop appliances and on the stove top. Consult a cookbook for specific methods and timing.

Country hams are very salty, but the salt content can be reduced before cooking by soaking the ham for 4 to 12 hours or longer in the refrigerator. They can then be either boiled or baked.

Canned hams come in two forms - shelf stable and refrigerated. Shelf stable hams usually weigh no more than 3 pounds. They have been processed to kill all spoilage bacteria and pathogenic organisms. The product is free of microorganisms capable of growing at ordinary room temperature. However, temperatures above 122 degrees may result in harmless thermophylic bacteria multiplying and swelling or souring the product. Unopened refrigerated hams may be stored in the refrigerator for six to nine months. The ham has been processed to kill infectious organisms, including Trichinae, but it is not sterilized. Spoilage bacteria may grow eventually. Do not freeze an unopened canned ham.

Cooking times can vary depending on the type of ham and the weight. The packaging should include some tips on cooking times. You may also consult a good cookbook.

GRILLING

The next focus on hamming it up is on grilling. One big bonus is that food tastes great cooked on the grill, whether it's a charcoal fire or fueled by gas.

Some grill chefs seem to turn out food that tastes better than others. This is true because of the chef's secrets.

Secret No. 1 is: Don't burn the food. Avoiding flare-ups helps prevent burning the food. To help prevent flare-ups, trim excess fat from your meat before it goes on the grill. The fat will just drip into the flames and cause a bigger flame resulting in charcoal on your food.

Charcoal on food not only doesn't taste good, but it also contains carcinogens called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which is not good for you.

Use tongs to turn the meat, not a fork. A fork will pierce the meat, causing juices to drip down into the flames, producing a flare-up which will char the meat, and you'll wind up having a dry steak or chicken. Also, adding salt after the meat is cooked will help retain juices and result in moister meat.

Don't grill frozen foods. They may look done on the outside before they are done on the inside. Make sure your food is completely defrosted and at a cool room temperature before it goes on the grill.

Oh, don't forget to use your food thermometer to check the internal temperature of any meat before removing it from the grill. You can't just "eye" the meat and be safe from foodborne bacteria. Ground beef patties may look done when they are at 135 degrees, but all ground meat must be cooked to 160 degrees in order to kill the bacteria. Remember, you and your guests run a high risk of developing foodborne illness if you consume underdone meat with high bacteria levels.

Poultry with the bone in should reach 180 degrees; chicken breasts, 170 degrees; cuts of pork, 160 degrees; cuts of beef, 145 degrees; and for medium rare, 160 degrees and 170 degrees for well done.

If you are reheating fully cooked meats such as hot dogs, grill them until they reach 165 degrees.

Serve your grill masterpieces immediately, or keep them at 140 degrees or warmer until you are ready to eat. This prevents bacteria from growing.