It can be debated which one is better known, chorizo or jamón, but ask a Spanish person which of these salt cured meats they’d consider to be the country’s signature meat product, and they’d likely answer jamón.
If you’ve ever tasted jamón, then you know it’s a beautiful piece of meat, savory, chewy, and smoky. Or is it? Jamón serrano and jamón Ibérico are vastly different than one might think, and in the article below, we’ll break down why.
And, for those who wish to dry the king of Spanish meats itself, you can always check out the selection at Yummy Bazaar.
What is jamón?
First, we should clarify one thing: while we’re talking about a specific product in this article, jamón is an umbrella term, much like salami. Jamón is a Spanish word for ham, and as such other types of hams and ham-like products are sometimes referred to by the name in Spanish-speaking countries.
That said, most people obviously know what they mean when mentioning jamón. After all, the “classic Spanish ham” is probably the most iconic Spanish salt cured meat product. Chorizo might be the one that’s best known and most oft-consumed, at least outside Spain. Still, it’s undoubtedly jamón a more knowledgable gourmand envisions when speaking about iconic Spanish meat products.
The jamón we’re going to be discussing in this article is a thinly sliced salt cured meat made from a pig’s hind leg, akin to Italian prosciutto, a significant reason why their appearances are often similar. That is, however, where the similarities end. Jamón’s production process differs from prosciutto’s in several key aspects, with the textures and flavors of final products entirely distinct.
Jamón has a drier and chewier texture than prosciutto (though it’s by no means rigid), as well as a more intense flavor and generally more robust aroma. Depending on the type (i.e., the breed of pig used and the production process), jamón can range from deep red to almost purple in color.
This type of jamón is always labeled either as Jamón Serrano or Jamón Ibérico to distinguish it from other hams.
How is jamón made?
Jamón is always made from the same meat cut - the hind leg of a pig. At least the jamón we’re talking about. Ham made from beef, venison, or poultry can also be marked as simply jamón, and it won’t be a lie. Jamón serrano and jamón Ibérico, on the other hand, are exclusively pork-based products.
The general production process looks the same for both types of jamón. The hind leg of the pig is thoroughly cleaned and cured with salt. Once the meat is adequately relieved of all moisture, the salt is washed off, and the leg is hung to dry. What marks the differences between jamón types is the detail of the process: the breed of pig used, the pig's diet, the time spent curing the meat, the time spent drying the meat, and, of course, where exactly the entire process took place.
Let’s take a closer look at what makes each type of jamón special.
What is jamón serrano?
Jamón serrano is the name used to refer to the most common dry-cured ham products in Spain.
It makes up for over 90% of jamón production and is the more affordable version by a wide margin. Still, there are several types that are considered delicacies in their own right (and have protected designation of origin to prove it).
Regular jamón serrano without designation can be made with most conventional pig breeds. It’s the cut that matters, and the breed and the pig’s diet are secondary (though it’s believed that the Spanish white pig (Cerdo Blanco) yields the highest quality jamón serrano and is thus the best breed to use for production).
Jamón serrano tends to be dark pink to red in color, with faint marbling from fat. It has a strong, somewhat dry, and chewy texture, a deep, smoky, and savory flavor, and a robust meaty aroma.
How is jamón serrano made?
The first step of the process is to clean the pig's hind leg thoroughly, cover it in salt, and wait for around two weeks until the salt has drawn out all the liquids from the meat to ensure there are no bacteria left. After the meat is properly cured, the salt is washed off, and it’s left to dry.
The drying process for jamón serrano is divided into two parts: the first is ubiquitous and lasts for roughly six months. The second part involves moving the ham to a dry and cool place, where it’ll continue the drying process for anywhere between 1 and 18 months, depending on the climate of the production region, the size of the pig’s leg, and, most importantly, the type of the ham that’s being produced.
Types of jamón serrano:
Spain established Consorcio Serrano (the official regulatory body for jamón serrano) in 1990. Since then, jamón serrano has been roughly divided into two major categories:
- Jamón Consorcio-Serrano, with the production process more or less tightly controlled and the quality checked by the consortium;
- Jamón Serrano with a more lax production process and no oversight from the regulatory body.
Jamón Consorcio-Serrano must be made from pigs that have been sourced and raised in Spain on farms that are regularly audited for quality. This type of jamón is usually made from Spanish white pigs that are bred in eclosed houses, have next to no mobility (to keep their meat tender), and are kept on a grain-based diet. Jamón Consorcio-Serrano is supposed to be left to dry for no less than 12 months (i.e., the initial six months, plus additional six months after being moved to the cool and dark room).
Unregulated Jamón Serrano has much fewer regulations. The pigs can be sourced from anywhere in the world, as long as the farms are based in the EU (the farms in question aren’t necessarily audited). The curing time can take anywhere from 7 to 18 months, with the final product labeled accordingly:
- Jamón Serrano de Bodega is considered the lowest quality, as it’s cured for less than 12 months, with just seven months not being uncommon;
- Jamón Serrano Reserva is cured for 12 to 15 months;
- Jamón Serrano Gran Reserva is regarded as the highest quality (among non-regulated jamón varieties, at least), with a curing period between 15 and 18 months.
Certain jamón serrano varieties have been granted protected designation of origin (or geographic indication) status. These varieties are counted among those controlled by Consorcio Serrano, made exclusively with Spanish white pig breed, and include Jamón de Teruel,
Jamón Dehesa de Extremadura, Jamón de Huelva and Jamón de Trevélez, among others.
Best uses for jamón serrano:
The most common way to serve jamón serrano is to have it sliced very thinly and serve as a tapas, accompanied by soft and crusty white bread and a little olive oil to drizzle on top.
That said, jamón serrano is frequently used as a meat substitute for various dishes. It pairs well with most cheeses, and it’s not uncommon to find bakeries that serve jamón serrano sandwiches, baked flatbreads, and even pizzas.
It’s also a common ingredient for Spanish-style croquettes, with Croquetas de Jamón one of the most popular flavors for frozen variety found all around the country in supermarkets.
What to pair with jamón serrano:
Chewy, savory, and intensely flavorful, jamón serrano is one of the easiest Spanish meats to pair. It goes well with most cheeses, though Manchego and other sheep milk cheeses are considered the best pairing. It’s frequently used to augment meaty flavor in fried foods, as well as soups and stews. It pairs well with most vegetables, particularly those with a blander taste like asparagus, zucchini, or potatoes, as well as eggs (it’s often added to omelets and frittatas for extra flavor).
If served as tapas or with a charcuterie board, it’s common to pair it with cheese, white bread, and moderately sweet fruits, like melon, apricot, or various berries.
What is jamón Ibérico?
Unlike jamón serrano, which is often referred to as just jamón in casual conversations, jamón Ibérico is always specified. Due to the tightly regulated production process, it accounts for less than 10% of jamón production worldwide.
The critical ingredient in jamón Ibérico is the pig. This jamón can be made only from either Black Iberian pigs or a cross-breed of Black Iberian with Duroc pig (with Iberian accounting for 50%).
Authentic jamón Iberico can only be produced in Spain or Portugal, as these are the Iberian pig’s native countries.
Jamón Iberico looks distinctly different from jamón serrano. It’s typically stark red color and is marbled with fat throughout, the whites much more visible. The higher fat content of Iberian pork results in a noticeably smoother, tender, and buttery texture. It has a slightly sweet, nutty, and savory flavor with a spicy, somewhat smoky aroma.
How is jamón Ibérico made?
The initial production process of jamón Iberico doesn’t differ much from jamón serrano. The hind leg of the pig is cleaned and cured with salt. After about two weeks, the salt is washed off the meat, and it’s left to dry.
Here’s where the processes diverge.
The initial drying process for jamón Iberico is just around four to six weeks. After that, it’s moved to another facility, where the final curing process occurs. Jamón Iberico needs to be cured for at least 12 months, but the process can last for up to four full years.
Types of jamón Ibérico:
Two systems are used to separate jamón Iberico into different types. One is the “color” label (quality category) and has to do with the breeding conditions and diets of the pigs:
- The white label indicates a pig that’s at least 50% Iberian and has been “conventionally farmed” in captivity on a grain-and-cereal-based diet;
- The green label indicates a pig that’s at least 50% Iberian; it has been brought up “free-range,” but the diet was supplemented with grains and cereals;
- The red label indicates a pig that’s above 50% Iberian; is “free-range,” and has been kept on an acorn diet;
- The black label indicates a pig that’s 100% Iberian; is “free-range,” and has been kept on an acorn diet.
The second way of categorizing has to do with the type of pig used and the length of curing process:
- Jamón Ibérico de Cebo is usually marked with a white label and is cured for at least 24 months. It accounts for around 2/3 of all jamón Iberico produced.
- Jamón Ibérico de Cebo de Campo is usually marked with a green label and is cured for at least 36 months.
- Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is made exclusively from pigs on an acorn diet and is thus marked with either a red or black label. The red label jamón Iberico is cured for a period between 36 to 48 months, and sometimes more. Pata Negra indicates black label jamón Iberico made from 100% Iberian pig (it means black paw in Spanish) since 2014 (the use of the term wasn’t regulated before that).
As with jamón serrano, certain jamón Iberico varieties have been granted protected designation of origin status: jamón Ibérico de Guijuelo, jamón Ibérico de Jabugo, jamón Ibérico Dehesa de Extremadura, and jamón Ibérico de Los Pedroches.
Best uses for jamón Ibérico:
Jamón Iberico is considered a delicacy, so unsurprisingly, it’s most often served on its own as tapas, accompanied only with white bread or tortas, extra-virgin olive oil, and some soft, creamy cheese.
Overwhelming the delicate flavors of jamón Iberico is considered a waste, but in certain instances, it can act as an ingredient in a simple dish. Bocata or Bocadillo with jamón Iberico is more or less common (though the ham is usually either the only ingredient or paired only with a light tomato spread and olive oil.
What to pair with jamón Ibérico:
The key is looking for flavors that will augment jamón Iberico instead of overwhelming it. Neutral flavors like white bread and soft cheese are considered good options.
But those who like more flavorful pairings pair it with strong cheeses (including Manchego), tomatoes (either fresh or sauce), or use it as a topping for more complex dishes (pasta, pizza, even steak) to add bold flavors.