How to Defrost a Ham

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Regardless of if you’re cooking a ham for a holiday or are just craving the mild, smoky-sweet flavor of the meat, defrosting it right is critical to ensure you don’t get a foodborne illness.

To help you learn how to defrost a ham, I’ve outlined four ways to do it in this post.

How to Defrost a Ham

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends the following methods for defrosting ham:

Method #1: Defrost in the Refrigerator

Using a refrigerator to defrost ham is the easiest (and safest) way to go about it, but it also takes the longest. Defrosting ham in the fridge will take between four to six hours per pound. 

The temperature of a typical fridge ranges between 34°F -38°F, which is warm enough for the ham to thaw, but cold enough to prevent the growth of bacteria.

To defrost ham in a fridge:

  1. Place the ham on a baking sheet or a pan with a lip. You can also put the ham in a container. This way, the water from the ham won’t spill all over your fridge when as it thaws.
  2. Place the meat on the lowest shelf of your refrigerator, away from any other food, to prevent cross-contamination.
  3. Wait until the ham is completely defrosted. 
  4. Cook within five days of defrosting. 

If your guests pull out of the get-together, or you decide not to cook the ham for any reason after defrosting, refreeze the ham as soon as possible, so you can still enjoy your favorite ham recipes later.

Slice of meat on ice

Method #2: Defrost in Cold Water

If you forget to put the ham in the fridge at the right time and need the ham to defrost quickly, you can defrost it in cold water.

To defrost ham in cold water:

  1. Wrap the ham in an air-tight, leak-proof bag.
  2. Ensure the bag isn’t broken since the meat could absorb the water, getting contaminated in the process. Exposure to water will also change the taste and texture of the meat.
  3. Plug the sink, put the bag in the sink, and fill it with cold water. Drain the sink every 30 minutes and fill it up again.
  4. Keep changing the water till the meat is defrosted.
  5. Cook the meat right after removing it from the bag. Do not refreeze it.

While defrosting ham this way requires a lot of attention, it won’t take as long. The meat will defrost at the rate of 30 minutes per pound.

Method #3: Defrosting in the Microwave

If you’re in a pinch and have a smaller piece of ham, you can defrost your ham in the microwave. 

Using your microwave to defrost a large piece of ham isn’t a good idea since the outer layer of the meat will begin to cook while the inside is only defrosted. 

When you eventually cook the ham, the outcome will be unevenly cooked. Some parts of the ham may even be dry and over-cooked.

Before you defrost a ham in the microwave, make sure you read the owner’s manual and adjust the microwave’s settings appropriately.

Cook the ham right after you defrost it – do not refreeze it.

Defrosting Ham in a Cooler

While this method isn’t recommended by the USDA, since a cooler is just like a fridge, you could pull it off as long as you keep checking on the ham.

You can use a Styrofoam cooler or a drink cooler for this purpose – whatever you have at hand.

To defrost a ham in a cooler:

  1. Wrap the ham in an air-tight, leak-proof bag.
  2. Put the bag in the cooler, and set the cooler somewhere cold.
  3. Leave a thermometer in the cooler, and keep checking the temperature every hour.
  4. If it crosses the 38°F mark, add ice packs to lower the temperature.
  5. Ensure that the temperature doesn’t rise above 40°F.
  6. Leave the ham in the cooler till it defrosts.

Cook ham within five days of defrosting, and if you decide not to cook it, refreeze it as soon as possible.

Ham seasoned with salt and rosemary

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I Defrost Ham in Warm Water?

Never defrost ham in warm water. It increases the risk of food poisoning. Also, when you return home from the store, don’t leave the ham on the kitchen counter. 

The ham should never reach 40°F since it is the beginning of what MSU defines as the danger zone. Leaving food in the 40°F-140°F range boosts bacteria growth with the bacteria doubling every 20 minutes. So make sure to keep the temperatures right and utensils clean and sanitary.

Is Defrosting Ham Necessary?

You can cook frozen ham – it won’t taste any different or develop microbes that give you foodborne diseases. However, you will need to cook the ham for longer if you decide to cook it in a frozen state. If you’re baking frozen ham, add 50% to the cooking time mentioned in the recipe.

How to Defrost Sliced Ham?

If you’ve got your hands on some smaller portions of ham, take the slices out from the packaging and transfer them into a Ziploc bag. Push all of the air out of the bag, seal it, and submerge the bag in cold water. If you have a pound of ham slices, leave the ham in the water for 30 minutes before cooking or consuming.

Beginner Cooking Methods

The Takeaway

Here’s a crib sheet to help you calculate how long it’ll take to defrost your ham:

MethodThawing time per poundThawing time per pound (if ham > 10 pounds)
Refrigerator/Cooler4-6 hoursUp to seven hours
Cold water30 minutes

With this chart, you can time defrosting the ham with ease. 

Multiply the number of pounds of ham you have to defrost with the appropriate figure in the table above to calculate the thawing time. Then, estimate when you’ll begin cooking the ham and subtract the thawing time from that figure.

Begin defrosting the meat accordingly, and rest assured the ham will be ready to cook when you get around to it.

Nathaniel Lee is an avid cook, drawing on his decades of home cooking and fine dining experience. He is a contributing chef at Mashed, and his recipes and contributions have been featured in Tasting Table, Edible Arrangements, Insanely Good Recipes, and The Daily Meal.