Q: This Christmas, I am responsible for cooking the Christmas ham. I thought that would be a very simple task. However, when I started putting together my list, I realized I had never cooked a ham before. Can you tell me what to buy and how to prepare my Christmas ham? I hope this doesn't sound like a stupid question.

- Sara M.

A: It's not a stupid question at all! Let's start with what a ham is. The word "ham" is defined as the pork that comes from the hind leg of a hog. Make sure not to buy something labeled "ham and water product," because this is the cheaper meat used for sandwiches.

When it comes to the better hams, you have many choices: fully cooked, partially cooked or uncooked hams; boiled hams; wet- and dry-cured hams; and spiral-sliced hams.

Obviously, a fully cooked ham needs no further preparation to be served, and a raw one calls for a LOT of work. So I recommend a partially cooked ham.

If you have trouble finding a partially cooked ham, you can still get a fully cooked ham and add finishing touches to make it your own creation.

Fully cooked hams are cured, either with a salt rub or wet brine solution, and smoked. So be careful about the salt content in the ham's glaze, since there's already going to be a high sodium level from the curing.

If you want to get an artesian ham (also known as a country ham) from Virginia, Tennessee or Kentucky, the best-known is the Smithfield ham. They're so salty that true Southerners soak them first to remove excess salt. Because of its briny nature, don't baste a Smithfield ham with its own juices.

Regardless of what ham you decide to buy (and unfortunately, cost does matter, so paying more will get you a better product), here are some things to look for when making your selection.

First, you want some marbling or fat, which will add flavor and moisture. Second and third, choose a ham that is rosy in color with a fine-grained texture. If you see a ham that has uneven coloring, it means that it was improperly cured, so stay away!

When buying, you have to take into consideration who is dining. I'm guessing that the majority of your party is composed of healthy, hungry, non-vegan adults. So, for a boneless ham, you'll want to buy a third- to a half-pound per person, knowing that you will trim it before and after it comes out of the oven (something you will do for all types of hams).

If it has a little bone in it, you'll want to buy a ham that will equal up to three-quarters of a pound per person; for one with a large bone, plan on about three-quarters to a pound or more per person.

Here are some tips for baking your masterpiece.

Line your roasting pan with aluminum foil; this will make the clean-up a lot easier. A large ham will have a rind on it. Keep it on until after two hours of cooking (at that point it will be easy to remove) to keep the meat moist.

You want to cook your ham to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Pull it out when the internal temperature reaches about 155 degrees. It will continue cooking as you let it rest for 15 to 20 minutes. Don't leave it in the oven too long; when ham is overcooked, it becomes very dry.

Don't use any sharp instruments when turning the ham, so you don't accidentally puncture it and let moisture out. To maximize the flavor and to keep it from drying out, keep the oven at a low temperature. I prefer 325 degrees.

When slicing to serve, it's best to make very thin slices so that the intense flavor won't be overwhelming.

Glazing a ham is just like using barbecue sauce. You put it on during the last 30 minutes; otherwise, the high sugar content will cause it to burn. Again, don't baste with the drippings, because they're too salty. A glaze adds flavor and an attractive finish to the finished product.

MUSTARD AND BALSAMIC GLAZED HAM WITH ROASTED PEARL ONIONS

1 1/2 pounds frozen pearl onions

1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1/3 cup good balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard

1/4 cup butter, diced

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 cup chicken broth

1 (approximately 10-pound) ham of your choice, (either partially or fully cooked), fat trimmed to 1/2-inch thickness

Blanch the frozen onions in a large pot of boiling salted water for 1 to 2 minutes; cool and drain. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a large roasting pan with aluminum foil.

In a small bowl, combine brown sugar, balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard to make the glaze. Transfer onions to an 11-by-7-inch glass baking dish. Add two-thirds of a cup glaze, butter, pepper and broth; toss to coat. Cover with aluminum foil.

Making 1/2-inch-deep slits, score ham with diamond pattern. (Make diagonal cuts along the surface of the ham. The cuts should be made in the fat layer. Don't penetrate the meat while scoring.)

Place ham in prepared roasting pan and bake 45 minutes. Place onions in oven with the ham and roast for 25 minutes more. Uncover onions, then continue roasting onions and ham an additional 50 minutes.

Brush some of the reserved glaze on the ham and continue to roast ham and onions until deep brown and glazed, about 30 minutes longer. Brush ham with glaze every 10 minutes during this phase. Its internal temperature should reach no higher than 160 degrees.

Remove from oven and transfer ham to large platter. Transfer onion mixture to bowl. Serve ham, passing onion mixture separately. Serves 12.

Chef Jim Coleman, corporate chef at Normandy Farm and Blue Bell Country Club, is the author of three cookbooks and hosts two nationally syndicated shows: "A Chef's Table," noon Saturdays on WHYY (91-FM); and "Flavors of America," 1 p.m. Saturdays on Channel 12, and 4:30 p.m. weekdays on CN8. He and his wife, writer Candace Hagan, will answer questions.