Turkey or Ham, which one should I serve this holiday?

Photos for this recipe are from Erin Hungsberg (IG: erin_hungsberg)

Are you team turkey or team ham? Which are you grabbing first? There are so many factors to consider: what’s the occasion, what’s more budget friendly, what do your guests want? 

During the holiday season, both turkey and ham are great options this time of year. It honestly comes down to personal preference, but in this article I will evaluate what’s better on the plate and why. I will also give some different options to save time and money and even what to do with leftovers. 

Should I make turkey or ham for Thanksgiving?

Almost everybody will be gutted if there’s no Thanksgiving turkey.  At the same time, most people get the smallest portion of turkey because, let’s be honest, there are usually a lot of better options at the table.

With other meats and sides to compete with, the once beloved turkey dinner could be an afterthought. 

Many people look forward to a Thanksgiving ham even more than the traditional turkey.  Ham does show up more often at Christmas or Easter, so I think you can see that it is just naturally a more well-liked and versatile protein.  

However, once you master the art of cooking a proper turkey it could be the star of your next Thanksgiving meal.  Either way, these are both an American tradition and you better make them count! 

How much turkey per person?

When cooking an entire turkey, plan for about 1 ½ pounds per person.  For example, if you are feeding 5 people, purchase a turkey that is about 7 pounds. If you are using a boneless breast, plan for 8 ounces per serving as you don’t need to factor in the weight of the bones.  With all of the other food at the table, you might have leftovers, but that’s not always a bad thing.  

How much ham per person? 

First of all there are a few different types of ham. The main thing to consider is bone in vs boneless. When cooking a bone-in ham, plan for 1/3-1/2 pounds per person.  If you are using a boneless ham, plan for 1/4-1/3 pound per serving.  I like to plan for a little more because I also use ham in other side dishes like green beans.  

Nutritional comparison.

Overall, turkey is recommended over ham for nutrition.  However, this is based on sodium content.  Ham is very high in sodium, but it is rich in zinc, potassium, and iron.  Ham has been used for generations to add salt and flavor to other dishes.  That being the case, be very careful adding additional salt to ham and to dishes that you’ve added ham to.  

Also some people don’t eat pork while generally most people will eat turkey. 

Turkey meat is also richer in protein, phosphorus, copper, and vitamins.  However, in order to cook a proper Thanksgiving turkey, you will most likely be adding quite a bit of butter and salt before cooking along with gravy on top when served.  So, “healthy” is probably a stretch for the Thanksgiving turkey too.  

Price comparison.

If you are buying a Thanksgiving turkey, you can expect to pay between $1-$3 per pound.  Fresh turkeys will cost a little more per pound, but they are lighter so the cost evens out.  They are also superior in taste as fresh usually tastes better than frozen.  

If you are buying a Thanksgiving ham, you can expect to pay between $5-$7 per pound.  There are many different variations and cuts of ham also.  

Don’t be afraid to ask someone coming over to take care of one of these proteins for you.  Ham is usually a better option for someone to pick up as it can be precooked and precut (like spiral cut hams) so it is easier to bring and will help lighten your overall budget.

The other good news is that grocery stores know that turkey and ham are big ticket items.  They run specials to keep Thanksgiving more affordable, so keep an eye out for that.  

Cooking a turkey.

Everyone is going to try the Thanksgiving turkey, and everyone is going to remember it. So it better be good! 

Cooking a delicious, whole turkey can involve many steps such as brining over night, seasoning, stuffing and basting as it cooks. It can be time consuming but it is the center piece of most Thanksgiving dinners so take your time and do it right. 

How long should I thaw a whole turkey?

I recommend moving the frozen turkey to the fridge 3 days prior to cooking.  The body cavity is typically frozen solid, and it takes longer than you think.  Letting the bird thaw slowly will help with the texture of the meat also.  

How long should I cook a whole turkey? 

First of all, I do not recommend going above 14 pounds for a Thanksgiving turkey.  If you need more servings than that, consider cooking two birds or some other combination. The larger turkeys take too long to cook and are usually not as tender or juicy as the smaller ones. 

The easy answer for how long you should cook a turkey depends on the temperature of your oven or grill and if your bird is stuffed.  If you are cooking at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, cook 13 minutes per pound if unstuffed.  Bump up to 15 minutes per pound for a stuffed bird.  

What should be the temperature of a cooked turkey?  

You should always check the temperature to ensure doneness.  The turkey should reach at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.  If stuffing the bird, the internal temperature of the stuffing should also be 165 degrees.

Thanksgiving Turkey time saving tips

If you are feeling overwhelmed with that huge bird, you have other turkey options! Turkey breasts and even smoked turkey legs are big crowd pleasers! See my guide to cooking store bought smoked turkey legs.

I tested 4 ways to cook them and the results may surprise you!

Cooking a ham.

You might be thinking, why would I cook another protein? Take a minute and think about your last Thanksgivings.  How much ham did people take? How much turkey did people take? 

I can almost guarantee that most people will grab a big slice of smoked ham and a little forkful of Thanksgiving turkey.  

Prioritize the ham. It’s meaty.  It’s the sister to bacon.  It makes killer leftovers like these ham and cheese sliders with cranberry sauce that are perfect for the day after.  

You can slice off ham to enhance other dishes too like in smoked green bean casserole.  You want to raise your vegetable game? Introduce them to the ham. 

Holiday Ham time saving tips.

The easiest shortcut is to buy a ham that is precooked and spiral cut.  If you are debating on the price of the uncut ham, don’t. Buy the spiral cut. 

Ham is notoriously difficult to cut, leave it to the professionals if you aren’t sure what to do. If you plan on smoking a ham see my recipe for how to smoke a ham in an electric smoker.

You can also follow the steps for this recipe in your oven as well.  If you are feeling really adventurous consider cooking a raw ham. 

The best sides for turkey and ham.

One of my favorite things about a holiday meal are the sides that go along with them. Try these next time along with your Thanksgiving dinner or special occasion. 

Creamy mashed potatoes 

Smoked green bean casserole 

The best loaded baked beans 

Smoked Mac and cheese with bacon 

Easy homemade pasta salad 

Overall winner of turkey vs. ham.

Turkey is the healthier option, is more affordable, and is the expected option for Thanksgiving.  But, it can be more difficult to prepare compared to ham. We always have turkey at our house as its a family tradition, but we generally have ham as well, especially if there are a lot of people. 

Consider the cost, cooking time, and guest expectations. Also, think about what are you in the mood for, do you plan on doing anything with the leftovers, what can you cook with better success?

Hopefully this article was helpful in coming up with some solutions that fit both your lifestyle, budget, and overall needs. 

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