Quick Recipes and Easy

Spanish Ham: How to Choose It

There seems to be some confusion –even amongst Spaniards- about the types of Spanish ham that are available: serrano, bodega, iberico, black foot, acorn, “del país”, etc.

The purpose of this article is to shed some light into this issue, laying out some basic principles that I hope will help you to make a better-informed choice next time you are in the fortunate position of buying a Spanish ham!

TYPES OF SPANISH HAM:

The taste, quality and price of Spanish hams vary enormously depending on:

The type of pig it comes from
The way the pig has been fed
Which leg –front or back- has been used to make the ham
The way the ham is cured

The most vital factor, without a doubt, is the type of pig. According to this, Spanish hams can be categorised as:

White pig: Serrano ham, cured ham, bodega ham or “Jamon del País”
Iberian pig: Iberico ham

SERRANO HAM:

Hams obtained from selected white pigs have a softer, sweeter taste and aroma than Iberico hams. They can be loved on their own or used for cooking and their price is significantly lower than that of Iberico hams. This ham, when still tender, looks similar to Parma ham and it can usually be found in some foreign supermarkets. But, even within this category the difference in quality can be vast. There is:

Serrano ham without an Origin Guarantee (Denomination of Origin)
Serrano ham with an Origin Guarantee: Serrano ham from Trevélez and Serrano ham from Teruel

Plain serrano ham is the simplest of all serrano hams. This can still be quite excellent, but it is in this category where you are more likely to find poor quality, factory-produced hams with artificial additives. On the other hand, serrano hams that have an official Origin Certificate are guaranteed to come from a specific breed of pigs of a minimum weight, to be produced in a limited geographical region that has certain particular characteristics, to follow traditional production methods and to have a minimum curing period. These hams can be exceptionally tasty. You will recognise them for their delicate and fragrant taste –never salty-, their streaks of yellowish stout and their soft and shiny texture.

Serrano ham from Trevelez, for instance, is produced in the Alpujarras region in Granada (Andalusia) at an altitude of around 1,500 m. It comes from Landrace, Large White and Duroc Jersey pigs and has a minimum curing period of 14 months.

IBERICO HAM:

Iberico hams are a world-apart, differing not only from serrano hams, but from any other hams in the world! Their flavours and aromas, after two years of aging, are so complex, so nutty, buttery, earthy and floral that Iberico hams deserve to be held in the same regard as white truffles, Beluga caviar, French champagne or any other comparable delicacy. It is its unique, complex and intense flavour –it is always served raw and very rarely used in cooking- that makes this product one of the most renowned Spanish delicacies amongst gourmets.

Iberico hams are sometimes called “black hoof” or “Jabugo”. This is a mistake and also misleading, as not all Iberico hams have black hoofs and not all come from Jabugo (a Spanish village).

Iberico ham comes from the Spanish indigenous Iberian pig. This breed, a close relative of the aggressive wild boar, has inhabited the south-western part of Spain for centuries. These wooded meadowlands are where the Iberian pig can find its favourite food: acorns. These pigs lead quite a privileged life, wandering around gorgeous oak forests and exercising their muscles all day. In fact, exercise is precisely the secret behind the exquisite taste of Iberico ham.

Indeed, the Iberian pig’s unique ability to transform the fats from the acorns into streaks that run through its muscle tissue is what gives the Iberico ham its perfectly marbled texture and distinctive aroma. The rich meat is finely striated with stout and has a hint of a taste that gives a clue as to the foods found in the environment where the animal has been raised: acorns, grasses, roots, herbs, spices, tubers and wild mushrooms found on the meadowland. Furthermore, Iberico ham has the property of liquefying at a low temperature—room temperature, for example—so it literally melts in your mouth.

Quality-wise, the main factor to take into account with Iberico hams is the way the pig has been fed:

Iberico ham “Bellota”: the finest quality. The Iberian pigs have been reared free-range in the mountains and fed exclusively on acorns (bellota). This exclusivity is obviously reflected in the high price it achieves.
Iberico ham “Recebo”: this name denotes mixed feeding. The pig eats acorns and pasture, but its last 30% of weight is achieved through compound feeding. This type of Iberico ham is of slightly lower quality than the “bellota” type, but still a right delicacy.

Just like serrano hams, there are also official Origin Guarantees (Denominations of Origin) for Iberico hams that guarantee their origin and ensure that they have been produced following traditional methods:

Iberico ham without an Origin Guarantee
Iberico ham with an Origin Guarantee: Iberico ham from Guijuelo, Iberico ham from Extremadura, Iberico ham from Huelva and Iberico ham from Pedroches

An Iberico ham without an Origin Guarantee can be as excellent as one with it. But, whilst the latter has passed strict tests to guarantee the breed of the pig, its weight, its origin, its feeding, a minimum ageing period, etc. –hence its higher price- with the former, you depend on the producer’s reputation on delivering a quality product.

THE PIG’S LEGS:

Finally, we must make a distinction based on the part of the pig used. This applies to both Serrano and Iberico hams:

Ham –“jamon”-: the pig’s back legs are used
Shoulder –“paleta”-: the pig’s front legs are used

There are a couple of points here to bear in mind. Shoulders are smaller –usually weighing 4-6 kg- hence they are perfect for an individual or a couple, as they will not dry out. In addition, the shoulder meat tends to be softer, since it is greasier than that of the ham. On the other hand, a ham weighs around 6-8 kg and so it is recommended for more regular consumption.

Finally, you can buy a ham or shoulder either as a whole piece –i.e. with the bone- or off the bone-. The latter can be practical, particularly if you are small of space in the kitchen or don’t fancy the thought of seeing a whole pig’s leg next to your kettle!

Buying an off-the-bone ham, but, can have some major drawbacks: it is rather hard to carve it in thin slices, unless you have a slicer, in which case, the heat coming off the slicer blade may have a negative effect on its quality and taste- and it tends to dry out quicker than a whole ham. Moreover, the slices will never look as nice as if they have been cut by hand. A whole ham can also make a fantastic centrepiece at a dinner party and, what’s more, carving a whole ham is a sheer pleasure not to be underestimated!

NOTE: If you buy a whole ham I highly recommend that, for your own safety and comfort, you use a ham holder or “jamonero” -to fix the ham when you are carving it- and a suitable ham knife or “cuchillo jamonero” with a long, thin blade.

Marcel Risques is a partner of delinostrum.com delinostrum.com a virtual shop from Barcelona specialised in Spanish gourmet food.



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