Does Ham Go Bad?

So you’ve bought a few packs of lunch meat ham in the deli. The price was really good, so you decided to stock up. And after a few days you started thinking: does ham go bad?

Or maybe you’ve bought a cured ham that you need to cook at home for a special occasion. The meat after cooking turned out super tasty, but you’re quite sure you won’t be able to eat all of it within a few days. So you started thinking about freezing the leftovers, but you’re unsure how well ham freezes.

Either way, if you have any questions or doubts regarding storage, shelf life, and going bad of ham, this article is for you. In it, we talk about deli meat ham, whole ham, an even touch upon canned ham. So we’ve got you covered, no matter what’s your preference.

Glazed ham
Image used under Creative Commons from Jessica Merz

How to Store Ham

When it comes to storing ham, there are basically two options: the fridge and the freezer. I know there are some specialty products like country ham that are sometimes sold unrefrigerated and keep well at room temperature, but the majority of ham products require refrigeration.

No matter what type of ham you’re dealing with, if it’s cured or not, cooked or not, or sliced or not, the same few basic guidelines apply. First and foremost, keep the meat well wrapped at all times. Packaged ham is usually vacuum sealed, or at the very least tightly sealed in a pack. And even if you buy sliced lunch meat at the deli counter, it usually comes well wrapped too. Once you open the package, if you can’t seal it easily, consider transferring the ham in an airtight container or a freezer bag. Those keep the moisture and smell inside, and prevent the ham from picking up any smells from the fridge. If neither is an option, aluminum foil or plastic wrap can work too. For the meat to last the longest, keep it in the far corner of the fridge and put right back there after taking as much as you need.

When it comes to canned ham sold unrefrigerated, room temperature is perfectly fine for it. A cool place in a pantry or kitchen is perfect for storing the tins. Once you open the can, store any leftovers in the fridge. Make sure they’re well covered, so they won’t leak the smell into the whole fridge and won’t dry out. If possible, just transfer the leftover ham to a small airtight container or the tin in a freezer bag.

Can You Freeze Ham?

If you want to store your ham for a prolonged period, freezing works really well. Plus it requires very little overhead, so there are no excuses for not freezing ham.

If your ham requires any processing before eating (e.g., it’s uncooked and requires cooking), take care of that before freezing. This way your thawed ham will be ready to consume, and you won’t have to worry about anything later on. Plus freezing can slightly alter the texture of the meat, so it likely won’t turn out as good after cooking a frozen and thawed ham.

The next step is to think about the portions. If you have a whole big ham on hand, it’s probably better to divide it into a few smaller parts, so each one lasts only a few days. Thawed meat retains quality for just a couple of days, so that’s a smart move. And if you’re using ham mainly for your sandwiches, consider slicing it before freezing. This way it’s ready to go right after defrosting. If you’ve bought a big batch of sliced ham at the deli, divide it into several smaller ones too.

When it comes to how to freeze ham, freezer bags usually work best, as they don’t take as much space as airtight containers. If using the bags, remember to squeeze out as much air before fastening the seal. If you expect to keep the ham frozen for longer than a few weeks, consider wrapping the portion with aluminum foil before putting it into the bag. An extra layer of protection against cold air is useful for prolonged freezing. If the ham is still unopened, no need for that additional protection, as the original packaging will do just fine. In short, all you need to do is to protect the ham from the cold temperature and drying out, and that’s about it.

As usual, unless you’re in a hurry, thaw overnight in the fridge

Cooked and cut ham
Image used under Creative Commons from waferboard

How Long Does Ham Last

The storage time is slightly different for each type of ham, depending on how it was prepared. But since those periods are quite similar, I won’t cover them one by one and instead talk about general guidelines.

If the ham is vacuum sealed, it usually retains quality for about 2 weeks. And pretty much always comes with a use-by date on the label. While the ham should keep unopened for a few days past that date, that’s about it. Of course, there are exceptions to the 2 weeks rule, like, e.g., Prosciutto that often lasts for over 2 months, but there are only a few of them.

Once you open the package, or if the ham comes opened (e.g., sliced at the deli counter), it lasts about 3 to 5 days. Same thing for thawed meat.

When it comes to canned ham, it comes with a best-by date, and can easily retain quality for a few weeks past that date. Once you open the tin, eat the ham within 3 to 5 days.

PantryFridge
Ham (vacuum-sealed, unopened)Use-by + 2 – 4 days
Ham (opened)3 – 5 days
Ham (thawed)3 – 5 days
Canned ham (sold unrefrigerated, unopened)Best-by + 1 month
Canned ham (sold unrefrigerated, opened)3 – 5 days

Please note that all the periods above are estimates only.

How to Tell If Ham Has Gone Bad

First off, check the dates. If you store the fresh ham way past the date on the label or it’s opened for a long time, just throw it out. Yes, even if it seems perfectly fine.

Then it’s time to check the quality of the meat. If it’s slimy or started turning gray, throw it out. Same thing if it has developed an off odor. If you notice that the smell of the ham isn’t quite right, even if ever so slightly, it’s past its prime, and you should discard it. Last but not least, if the taste is off, throw it out.