Did you know that Jamón Ibérico is 1 of the 4 aces of global gastronomy along with caviar, foie-gras and truffles?
Or that Spain is the world’s largest consumer of ham? It isn’t actually all that surprising, considering that Spain is home to the renowned, the delectable, and the famous – Jamón Ibérico.
Real jamón iberico is so popular that in 2017 Spain raised and slaughtered 3.5 million more pigs than there are people in the country. This is to meet the growing international demand for Iberico ham.
The reason why the whole world wants a taste of Spain’s ham is that it is one of the most to-die-for Spanish foods. It is also one of the best hams in the word.
If you want to procure some of this world-renowned ham, we don’t blame you. But before you start your quest, it is important that you know how to find and identify the best ham on the market.
Otherwise, you may end up paying top dollar for inferior Spanish jamón.
Understanding Jamón Grades
The first step to procuring some top-notch Spanish ham is to understand the different grades of jamón.
Iberico ham is categorized into different levels of quality and labeled accordingly. Here are the four labels and what they mean.
Ham that sports a black label is the most top shelf of Iberico ham. It is made from Iberico pork that comes from 100% purebred Iberico pigs which are native to the Iberico Peninsula. These pigs are called pata negra, or black hoof. The pata negra pig is a great way to differentiate pigs that are used to make Jamón Iberico and Jamón Serrano. These pata negra pigs are essentially free ranged and given vast stretches of land to roam on.
In fact, government regulation mandates on average only one pig allowed per hectare (2.5 acres) of land. These pigs are not fed grains or cereals and feed solely on falling acorns, or bellotas, during that last six months of their lives. Also known as the fattening stage. An Ibérico pig must eat anywhere between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds of acorns to be truly worthy of the title “de Bellota!”
After this period the pigs are slaughtered and processed into ham. Iberico ham that meets the black label standards is aged for at least 3 years.
During both the slaughtering and aging stages the ham is checked by D.O.Ps (Denominaciones de Origen Protegida) inspectors to ensure that it meets the highest-quality of standards.
Because of time and inputs that go into producing this high-quality Spanish ham, it is the most expensive Iberico ham on the market. This category of ham is called jamón Ibérico de bellota and are often labeled ‘reserva’ and ‘gran reserva’ to denote their age. On an average year, less than 12 percent of iberico pigs yield the precious Black Label grade.
Red label ham differs from black label Iberico in only one way. The Iberico pork from which the ham is made is a 75% Iberico breed instead of purebred. Besides this difference, the other standards of quality remain the same.
The pigs are free-ranged under acorn trees, receive no cereals, and eat solely acorns during their last six months. The curing ham is also aged for at least 3 years.
Red label ham is not as costly as black labeled ham, but it is still fairly pricey due to its high level of quality.
Iberico ham that has a green label is made from a breed of 50%-75% Iberico pig. These pigs are fed some cereals, but receive acorns as well and are free-ranged.
Sometimes what can also happen is that cuts of ham which did not make the standards for black label certification are then sold under the green label. With these cuts, the difference between them and a true black labeled ham can be very small. This means that you can often pick up a bargain when buying Iberico ham that has a green label.
For this reason, green label ham is a favorite among the Spanish. It is often described as being younger, with a more intense and salty flavor.
Often referred to as jamón de Cebo or “bacon ham”, Iberico ham that has a white label is made from pigs who are 50% Iberico. However, they are not free-ranged and are kept in pens. These pigs are fed a diet of cereals only.
An important part of the rearing of pigs for Iberico ham is that they need a lot of exercise.
Which is why the other higher grades of Iberico ham are made from free-ranging pigs. White label ham is inferior to the other grades because the pigs are often reared inside and get no exercise. Their diet also has a large impact on the flavor and texture of the final ham.
Once you understand the labeling standards that indicate the quality of Iberico ham, it is much easier to make an informed buying decision.
Besides using the labeling to guide you in selecting great quality ham, there are also a few other tricks and tips.
Jamón Ibérico Tips & Tricks
Go for Hand Sliced
One of the easiest ways to ensure heightened quality is to go for hand sliced Iberico ham over machine sliced. Master carvers, Maestros Jamoneros, know how to perfectly slice Iberico ham so as to incorporate the ideal amount of fat into each slice. Resulting in ham slices that have an ideal fat-to-meat ratio.
Only Purchase Vacuum Sealed Iberico Ham
Although Iberico ham is well cured and does not easily go off when packaged, the increased humidity levels can allow bacteria to develop.
To stay on the safe side, as well as to ensure that the ham you buy is fresh and moist – only buy vacuum sealed Iberico ham.
Analyzing the Jamon Iberico Color
Another way to determine the quality of Iberico ham is by analyzing the color. The color generally ranges from bright red to pink. Bright red denotes well-cured ham that is highly aged.
Pinker tones suggest ham that is less aged – which is not always a bad thing. Depending on your taste, a milder ham might be preferable.
Pink hints, on the other hand, within the muscle fibers, are another indication of a well-aged and long cured cut.
Analyzing the Fat Jamon Iberico
If you pay close attention to the fat in Spanish ham, this can also tell you a thing or two.
The ideal patterning for fat within the ham is a light marbling. This will imbue every bite with just enough richness. Besides beautiful marbling, if you look even closer at the fat, you may see that when exposed to room temperature it takes on a silky sheen. This is another sign of top quality, expertly cured ham.
Keep an Eye out for Small White Crystals
By examining the fat you may also see tiny white crystals that look like salt beading on the fat. This indicates a long and slow curing process (which is ideal) and low salinity.
Low salinity is important for the final taste of ham because if it is too salty, this will impact the flavor.
Consider the Jamon Iberico Cuts
Besides pre-sliced ham, there are two other forms in which you can buy Iberico ham.
Whole Iberico Ham Legs
Whole legs of Iberico ham are available to buy. They are particularly popular for parties where they can serve as a centerpiece. Whole legs also make great gifts. If you have a gourmet as a friend, a whole Iberico ham leg would be a superb gift for them!
While whole ham legs look amazing, they do involve a little extra work. Jamón legs are usually comprised of 50% fat and 50% meat. Much of the fat sits on the outside of the leg, and you will need to cut through it in order to reach the ham underneath. After this, you also need to expertly carve the ham.
These procedures are not for the novice. But, if you prize your knife skills, then carving a whole jamón leg can be a great opportunity to impress guests or to celebrate a special occasion.
Whole Iberico Ham Shoulders
Besides whole legs, you can also buy whole shoulders of Iberico ham. Like the legs, jamón shoulders require you to carve off and finely slice the meat within. At the same time, you must take care to incorporate the right amount of fat with the meat.
Whole shoulders can entail even more work than legs, thanks to their meat-to-fat ratio. Iberico shoulder hams generally have a fat-to-meat ratio of 40% meat to 60% fat.
While this may sound like a loss, there is a great advantage to choosing a whole Iberico ham shoulder. And this is that you can use the bone as the basis for jamón stock which can then be used to make delicious soups, stews and other spanish recipes. You can also use small amounts of the discarded fat from the outside of Iberico hams to flavor dishes.
Sliced Iberico Ham
If you do not feel like the effort involved in carving a whole leg or shoulder of Iberico ham, then do not feel ashamed to simply purchased some already sliced jamón. Pre-sliced Spanish jamón will be finely cut, and if hand sliced promises to be expertly carved. As mentioned earlier you can easily find pre-sliced Jamon iberico vacuum sealed by most of the manufactures of Jamon Iberico.
Leading Jamón Ibérico Manufacturers
Below is a list of the most popular and trusted manufacturers of Jamon Iberico in Spain. All have a long and rich history of proudly providing generations of Spaniards with the most premium quality Jamon Iberico.
Where to Buy Jamón Iberico
If you are lucky enough to be in Spain right now, then finding some top quality jamón shouldn’t be all that hard. But, most likely you are not in Spain, which can make getting hold of the best Spanish ham a little harder.
Fortunately, we can point you in the direction of a few places where you can order true Iberico ham.
First off, if you live in New York you may want to pop into Despaña, a specialty shop that sells Iberico ham products. If you are feeling fortunate you can also try Amazon, as there are some sellers who stock Spanish ham.
Or, an even better choice, you can check out our online Spanish foods shop where we sell some of the best Spanish jamón, as well as jamoneros (Spanish ham holders), special jamon carving knives, and other authentic Spanish foods and drinks.
How to Slice Jamon Iberico
To truly immerse yourself into the Jamon Iberico experience you’ll want to try your hand at slicing. To do this properly your going to need some necessary Jamon iberico tools;
- Jamonero (Spanish Ham Holder)
- Afilador (Knife Sharpener)
- Cuchillo de Jamón (Special Ham Carving Knife)
- Smaller knife for tighter cuts
- Hand Tongs to handle the slices
Rather then explain the detailed process, this step by step video will give you a much better idea of how slicing Jamon iberico should be done.
Great Iberico Ham Pairings
Before you purchase some beautiful Iberico ham, here are some pairing tips!
Iberico ham pairs well with both sweet and umami flavors, making it super versatile. Whatever your pairing, just be sure to serve and eat Spanish ham at room temperature. This will ensure that the ham literally melts in your mouth thanks to the unsaturated fats.
A classic way to eat Iberico ham is to squeeze the juice of half a tomato over a thin slice of toast, then drizzle with Spanish olive oil, add a pinch of salt, and place the Iberico ham on top.
If you want to go the classic breakfast route with your jamón, you can omit the tomato, and instead place a poached egg on top of Iberico ham on lightly toasted bread. The combination of the egg yolk, crusty toast, and salty Iberico ham makes this a time-honored favorite.
If you want to go the sweet route with your Iberico ham, you can also pair it with fruit. Sweet melon is a traditional pairing in Spain for Iberico Ham. Perfect for hot summers, all you need to do is lay a slice of jamón over a slice of mellon… and enjoy.
Iberico ham also makes for a show-stopping ingredient in Spanish tapas. You can use it in much the same way you would incorporate any ham into a tapas board. You also create miniature versions of the above ham and tomato toast, ham and melon or with any spanish cheese to incorporate into a Spanish themed tapas board.
If you wish to incorporate jamón into an entree, it pairs amazingly with steak.
Of course, no tapas board, or a good meal, is complete without a good wine. Iberico ham pairs well with many wines. Dry sherries make a superb pairing, as does manzanilla. Bolder reds can also make an excellent pairing.
If you wish to pair your jamón with a sparkling wine, this can create a refreshing effect.
Besides wine, there is another beverage that pairs exceedingly well with Iberico ham. And that is beer. Beer creates a refreshing backdrop to the saltiness of the ham. It is especially complimentary if paired with a spicy dish that contains Iberico ham.
Fun fact: In Spain, the culinary word for pairing is ‘marriage’ if translated directly.
How To Store Jamon Iberico & How Long Does It Last
Chances are you won’t be able to eat your entire Iberico ham in one sitting. If that’s the case, the best way to preserve the freshness of the Jamon iberico is to cover the sliced area with plastic wrap or even better with the initial outer cuts of fat. This will help keep the flavor and moisture of the meat.
If the ham hasn’t been enjoyed for some time, discard your first slice of the exposed area as it will be tough and dry. No worries though, the rest of the ham will still be in perfect condition.
You should store your whole, bone-in ham in a cool, dry ventilated place like a wine cellar or a clean basement. We wouldn’t recommend the kitchen as it could get too hot or absorb odors from other foods. You can either leave the Jamon iberico in the jamonero or just have it hang by a rope. However, once started, we would recommend consuming it within 30 days.
On the other hand, sliced Jamon Iberico needs to be refrigerated. If it’s a boneless ham it should be wrapped in butcher paper or plastic wrap for storage and it will last for a few weeks. If it’s a vacuum sealed package, once opened it is recommended that you finish the package the same day. Unopened though, it can last for a few months.
When serving refrigerated Jamón, make sure to take it out of the fridge ahead of time. Jamon Iberico should be served at room temperature. One last thing, do not freeze Jamon Iberico, it is too delicate and it will lose its aroma and flavor.
Jamon Iberico vs Jamon Serrano
There are several differences between Jamon Iberico (Iberian Ham) and Jamon Serrano (Mountain Ham);
- breed of pig
- diet of pig
- curing (aging) of the jamon
Breed of Pig
As discussed Jamon iberico is made from Cerdo Iberico or Iberian black hoofed pigs. While Jamon Serrano is made from Cerdo Serrano which are Mountain white hoofed pigs and can be either Duroc, Landrace, or Large White breed.
Diet of Pig
Depending on the Iberian pig’s grade (Black, Red, Green or White Label), it’s diet can be anywhere from acorn only to a cereal feed only. While Serrano pigs are fed mainly cereals and grains.
It may sound odd to reference a pig’s lifestyle, but when it comes to Spanish ham it definitely is a factor. As far as pigs go, Iberian pigs live a stress free lifestyle until of course, that infamous day. But until then they spend their time in the Dehesa, in southwestern Spain. A harmonious and beautiful landscape, foraging for acorns and such. While the typical Serrano pig, lives in a more confined area. Jamon experts attribute Jamon Iberico’s texture being such because of the animal’s ideal and relaxed living conditions.
Curing of the Jamon
Typically, the curing process for jamon iberico can take between 14 to 36 months. While jamon serrano is cured for 7 to 16 months. The curing process goes through four phases;
- Salting & Washing Phase: during this phase the freshly cut hams are placed in temperature controlled rooms and covered with sea salt. After seven to ten days have passed they are rinsed in lukewarm water to remove salt crystals from their surface.
- Resting Phase: the hams are then stored in cold rooms for a month or two. During the resting phase the salt penetrates the hams thoroughly, giving them a significantly denser quality, since much water has been removed. This helps enhance the dehydration and conservation of the Jamon.
- Drying & Maturation Phase: as the phase infers it’s time to get the hams to a drying area or a “secadero”, where the hams will continue to lose moisture, and “sweat”. This is the phase where the hams achieve their final flavor and their signature aroma begins to develop.
- Bodega Phase: this is the final phase of the curing process where Ibérico and Serrano hams are hung in cellars, or bodegas, anywhere from 7 months to as much as five years – typically larger hams will take a longer time to cure. The final decision goes to the Jamon specialist who draws on years of experience in determining when the hams are ready for consumption.
Because of all the factors above jamon iberico, especially Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is pricier then Jamón Serrano. For example, a bone-in 14-17 lbs. price of Jamon Iberico de Bellotta can cost upwards of $1,000. While a similar sized Jamon Serrano will run approximately a third of that.
While there are quite a few differences, don’t sell Jamón Serrano short. It is truly delicious in it’s own right and enjoyed by millions of Spaniards on a daily basis.
High-quality Iberico ham can be hard to come by. But now that you know how to identify premium jamón iberico – and where to get it – there is nothing stopping you from sampling some of the best Spanish ham in existence.
If you are a lover of not only top-shelf Spanish ham – but Spanish foods in general, and ready for dessert, check out our Spanish foods articles for recipes, and articles like 13 Spanish Desserts That Transcend Your Tastebuds.
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