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What is a Picnic Ham?

Jessica Ellis
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The picnic ham, is a culinary gem that's not quite a traditional ham but tantalizes taste buds with its smoky allure. According to the National Pork Board, pork shoulder, often referred to as a picnic ham, is a versatile cut that's gaining popularity, with a 2.9% increase in sales in recent years. Though it's not a true ham, which comes from the hind leg of the pig, this front shoulder cut undergoes a smoking process that imparts a ham-like flavor. 

A staple in New England and Southern cuisine, the picnic ham is commonly glazed or barbecued, offering a festive centerpiece for gatherings. It's the perfect blend of taste and tradition, bringing a touch of celebration to any meal.

The term "ham" is usually applied to the meat taken from a pig's back legs. Picnic hams are instead taken from the front leg and shoulder area. They are often slightly more tough and require a longer cooking time than traditional ham. Expert butchers note that there is also more waste in the butchering process, as the bone structure of the shoulder requires additional carving.

One popular way to serve picnic ham is with a deeply sugary glaze. The uncooked meat is coated with a boiled-down mixture that usually contains molasses, cane sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, butter and cherry juice. Like traditional hams, the meat may be studded with pineapple slices and maraschino cherries during roasting.

A traditional New England dish is the boiled New England dinner, of which pork shoulder is a major component. This basic dish consists of slow-boiled meat and vegetables, including rutabagas, cabbages, carrots, and turnips. The New England dinner is thought to have derived from Irish-American cuisine, known for its simplicity and heartiness. A similar dish, called a Jigg’s Dinner, can be found throughout the Newfoundland and Labrador areas of Northeastern Canada. Although both dishes use this meat, it is commonly referred to as pork shoulder in context, as the boiling process removes much of the ham flavor.

To serve picnic hams on an actual picnic or for an outdoor summer dinner, some enjoy cooking the meat with a tangy barbecue-style glaze. For this recipe, the meat is boiled with spices, along with vegetables of the cook's choice. She can prepare her preferred barbecue sauce; one version of the recipe calls for a mixture of onions, vinegar, brown sugar, mustard and hot peppers. The meat is brushed with the sauce and baked, and it is recoated with sauce occasionally. While it may not be cooked over the grill, it will have a smoky and heavy flavor.

Because pork shoulder is usually considerably less expensive than traditional ham, it is excellent for families on a tight budget. For busy people, throwing some into a slow cooker with vegetables and spices will create a lovely stew by the end of the day. When teaching children to cook with meat, picnic hams can be an easy start to understanding glazing and flavor combinations. Whether with a complicated sugary topping or simply soaked in apple juice, it can stand up to most flavors and is a great meat for cooking experimentation.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for DelightedCooking. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon295119 — On Oct 04, 2012

No matter how you cook a picnic ham, it's difficult to screw it up; picnic hams are very forgiving. Leftovers (including the bone) are the beginnings of a fantastic bean soup, but that's another recipe.

By anon293033 — On Sep 23, 2012

I love picnic hams! I just boil mine on the stove in a large pot. I put the ham in, add water until it comes about 2/3 of the way up the side of the pot, and boil it 1/2 hour per pound. It comes out great. The meat is so tender, it slides right off the bone. You just have to make sure that you turn it every hour or so, and make sure the water level stays at about 2/3 of the way up the side of the pot. Leftovers are good in scalloped potatoes, too!

By anon259547 — On Apr 06, 2012

I have cooked our picnic ham this way for 40 years and everyone loves them.

Put in a deep pot. Pour a liter of Canada Dry Ginger Ale over all, then one large can of pineapple juice. Cover and cook at 350 for an hour or so. Turn the ham halfway through the cooking time since the top will not be in the liquid.

When it's done you can serve as is or you can put pineapple rounds and maraschino cherries on to decorate and heat before serving. Some people like to stud it with whole cloves all over before cooking. That is a bit much for me, but the kids loved it.

By lightning88 — On Dec 05, 2010

I love picnic ham! I grew up eating it because my grandmother was a huge fan of it as well. It's definitely one of those "must try in your lifetime" sort of things.

In case you're interested, here is my grandmother's all time favorite "No Fail" Smoked Pork Shoulder/Picnic Ham recipe:

Take two cups of packed brown sugar, and a picnic ham of the size that will fit in your slow cooker.

Spread most of the sugar on the bottom of the cooker, reserving only about a half a cup. Put two drops -- only two drops! -- of vanilla extract on the top of the sugar, and then place your ham flat side down onto it.

Take the rest of the sugar and rub it into the top and sides of the pork, making sure to work it deep into the tissue, and not just on the surface.

Then cover it up, put it on low heat, and let it cook for eight hours. The last thirty minutes before you take it out, open it up and put a few rounds of pineapple on the top, and turn the heat up very slightly.

And that's it -- the best recipe for picnic ham in the slow cooker this side of the Mason Dixon line -- or so Granny always said!

By closerfan12 — On Dec 04, 2010

In my mind, there's nothing better than a nice smoked picnic ham for your Sunday lunch. My mom always cooked either a chicken or a smoked picnic ham for our Sunday dinner after church, and I can still remember the delicious smell of that pork shoulder (picnic ham) wafting out of the kitchen.

There's just nothing better on a cold winter's day than a good roasted picnic ham -- so if you haven't tried it, get a picnic ham recipe and try it out! You'll definitely be hooked; it's just that good.

By StreamFinder — On Dec 02, 2010

I am the queen of the crock pot picnic ham -- I started cooking picnic ham in my slow cooker when I was in college and needed to use cheaper cuts of meat, fell in love with it, and haven't looked back since.

Honestly, although a picnic ham may be a little tougher than say, a spiral ham, it still works very well as a honey glazed ham, and if you let it cook slowly, with a lot of basting, then you can get just as tender a product.

It's all about matching the temperature and the cooking time to that particular cut of meat -- and when you get the hang of it, you can get really fantastic results!

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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