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Going Ham for the Holidays

Posted by CiCi Williamson, Technical Information Specialist, USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, Food Safety Education Staff in Food and Nutrition Health and Safety
Dec 23, 2013

‘Tis the season for ham! If you’re a ham fan, this one’s for you. In addition to Easter, more hams are served during the winter holidays than any other time of year. Just visit friends or family and you’ll likely be offered this easy-to-prepare-and-serve smoky, tangy, pink meat.

Unfortunately, it is easy to contract a foodborne illness if you eat ham left out too long at room temperature or from other mishandling practices. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is recommending the following ham handling tips to keep guests and hosts safe at holiday gatherings.

Buying a Ham

Meat from the hind leg of a hog is called “ham.” When buying one, temperature and timing are important.

  • Forty degrees is the safe temperature when buying refrigerated hams. Make sure when you buy any type of perishable ham that it is kept refrigerated at 40 °F or below.
  • Two is the safe time. Take perishable ham home and refrigerate it within two hours. Bacteria grow rapidly in the temperature “Danger Zone” between 40 °F and 140 °F.
  • Hot is the safe condition. When picking up a hot, cooked ham at a store or restaurant, keep it hot—at least 140 °F. Take it home and keep it at this temperature until serving. If you are serving it later, divide portions into shallow containers or packages and refrigerate it to eat cold or reheat later to 165 °F.
  • Canned hams are safe on the shelf as are dry country hams.

Storing a Ham

Some people believe that because most hams are “cured,” they can be safely refrigerated longer that other types of meat.

  • While some hams do have a longer shelf life than raw poultry, ground meats, and raw meat, ham does not stay safe forever.
  • Dates on packages of ham are “purchase” dates, not safe storage time in home refrigerators—unless the ham is vacuum sealed at a USDA-inspected plant.
  • You can store perishable ham safely according to these time limits: Uncooked ham, fully cooked spiral-sliced or unsliced ham, 3 to 5 days; ham after home cooking, 3 to 4 days. For more storage times, go to and type in “ham storage.”
  • Ham of any kind may be frozen indefinitely; however, for best quality, use frozen ham in 1 to 2 months.
  • A whole, uncut country ham can be stored safely at room temperature for up to 1 year. The ham is safe after 1 year, but the quality may suffer.
  • An unopened shelf-stable, canned ham may be stored at room temperature for 2 years.

Cooking a Ham

Cook all raw fresh ham and ready-to-eat ham to a minimum internal temperature of 145 °F as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source.

  • Set the oven temperature to 325 °F.
  • To see estimated cooking times, go to and type in “ham cooking times” to find a cooking chart.
  • For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming.
  • For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook meat to higher temperatures.
  • Reheat cooked hams packaged in USDA-inspected plants to 140 °F and all others to 165 °F.

Ask Karen, the virtual food safety representative, is available 24/7 at Weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. ET, the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline is available at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or via live chat at