Hamming It Up

Each year Jason Holzinger, our seed corn dealer, gives us a ham for Christmas. It’s the best ham in the world, an Ossian bone-in ham.

I’ve been wanting to try cooking something sous vide and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I don’t have a sous vide cooker, and even if I did it probably wouldn’t be big enough for a ham.

But I’d read in Kenji Lopez-Alt’s amazing cookbook, “The Food Lab” about using a picnic cooler as a sous vide cooker. The idea is a insulated picnic cooler will hold a large quantity of heated water at a steady temperature for hours. Long enough even to heat a ham.

These hams are cooked and you want to heat them to around 145 degrees for serving. According to Kenji that’s right in the sweet spot for what you can do with a picnic cooler sous vide, so away I went.

I got my Holzinger ham and put it in our cooler.

Ham and Cooler

Sous vide is French for “under vacuum” and what you do to cook “sous vide” is to vacuum seal whatever you’re cooking and immerse it in hot water until it is cooked.

The ham comes vacuum sealed, so all I had to do was heat 4 gallons of water to 150 degrees. I wanted the water to be 140 degrees in the sous vide cooker, and I figured it would drop 10 degrees in warming up the ham and cooler.

Hot Water

Pretty close to 150! Water comes out of our hot water tap at 115, so it doesn’t take long to come up to 150. I poured this into the cooler.


And the temperature dropped fairly quickly below 140 degrees. That ham was just out of the refrigerator at 36 degrees, so it was essentially a 10 pound ice cube. I added a gallon of boiling water a couple of times over the next half hour and the temperature stabilized at my desired 140 degrees.

Cozy Cooking

I wrapped the cooler to help hold the heat. After the temperature stabilized I only had to add boiling water once more in 3 hours to keep the temperature up.

I let the ham sit in the sous vide cooker for 4 hours at 140 degrees, then took it out and put a brown sugar and balsamic vinegar glaze on it and blasted it in a hot oven for 15 minutes.

Pretty as a Picture

The glaze made it pretty as a picture, but didn’t do anything for me flavor-wise. I wouldn’t bother with it next time.[1]

The ham though was amazing, more tender and juicy than any ham I’ve ever had. It was almost “cut with a fork” tender.

There were a few “lessons learned” I’ll apply next time.

  • Let the ham come to room temperature first. It took a lot of fussing with boiling water to get a stable temperature in the cooler.
  • Plan for getting the ham out of the cooler when it’s done. While 140 degree water is nothing like messing with the superheated water from a pressure cooker, getting a ham out of 5 gallons of water at 140 degrees is a challenge. It’s just hot enough you really don’t want to thrust your hands into it. And picking the cooler up off the floor and tipping it into the sink was a thrill in itself.

Thanks Jason and Kenji for the best ham ever!

1. I’ve tried a variety of glazes, and never liked any of them. Mom never glazed a ham and I guess that’s a childhood taste I still have.

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