Even though I grew up Jewish ― and this is true ― my nickname growing up among my friends was Hambone, and this is entirely because of how much I love ham.
It’s not a dish I got to eat too often at family events. I used to finagle my way to Easter dinners and holiday meals just to behold the spectacle of a spiral-cut ham. Once, when I was younger, I saw a recipe on the Food Network featuring Alton Brown, ham and Dr. Pepper, which were, at the time, my favorite three things.
On a trip through the American Southwest with my family as a kid, I fell in love, hard, with Dr. Pepper, which has an alleged 23 different flavors. The flavor of Dr. Pepper offers a compelling, almost savory depth that’s not like Coke or Pepsi, and, of course, not like Sprite or 7UP, and when you pair it with something as salty and rich as ham, it becomes another thing altogether.
Dr. Pepper was created, as it happens, by an actual doctor. The drink was the brainchild of a pharmacist — Charles Alderton of Waco, Texas. Alderton developed the drink in the late 1800s as a sort of digestive aid. Medical claims were later abandoned, of course, but the “Dr.” name stuck. Over 100 years later, Dr. Pepper still commands a loyal following, particularly in Texas.
In the north, where I’m from, you don’t necessarily find a lot of steadfast Dr. Pepper drinkers (don’t get me started on Moxie, which comes from Maine). But a couple of years ago, I got it in my head that Dr. Pepper was going to be my new holiday thing, and so I started experimenting with glazes and brines, reductions, and more. With its 23 mysterious flavors, many of which are still undisclosed over a century later, it’s hard to know exactly how to manipulate Dr. Pepper to make it the way you want it.
It’s a little medicinal, a lot sweet. It’s syrupy by nature, even more so when cooked down. At its finest, it’s almost herbaceous, with notes of stewed fruit, cherry, licorice, amaretto, birch, blackberry, apricot, nutmeg and cardamom.
A ham can be served with many sweetened glazes to bring out the contrast between the saltiness of its meat and fat and the sweetness of whatever you choose to serve against it. But Dr. Pepper, in its basic simplicity, its sinfulness, its Americana ― this, to me, is an effortless and perfect option.
I don’t favor a glaze of anything but Dr. Pepper anymore. Years of cooking have taught me balance, and a good Dr. Pepper glaze needs sweet, but salty, too, with umami on the back palate, and a little bit of bite from garlic. Soy sauce. Sugar, for caramelization. Dijon mustard. All of it.
But once it has come together and cooked, crackling on the edge of that holiday ham like brown beach glass, you’ll wonder, in earnest, how you ever thought to cook with any other single ingredient when it came to ham; how you didn’t know the secret of the good, good doctor.
Dr. Pepper-Glazed Ham
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Combine the soy sauce, Dr. Pepper and garlic in a small saucepan. Cook over a low heat until reduced by half, or it easily coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat. Stir in the brown sugar and Dijon mustard and set aside.
3. Place the ham on the rack of a roasting pan and thoroughly coat with the glaze, making sure to work it between the ham’s layers with your hands (I recommend using a pair of latex or kitchen gloves for this). Tent with foil and bake for an hour, checking every 15 minutes and basting with more glaze.
4. Cook until the ham is heated through. Toward the end of cooking, remove the foil tent, continue glazing and allow the heat from the oven to burnish the top. If the heat appears to be turning the ham too dark, you can tent it again, so make sure to keep the foil nearby.
5. Serve the ham hot, with the glaze alongside the meat, like gravy. You can slice some of it and serve it on a platter, with the remainder served whole, as the centerpiece.