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Stories About Spain

How to Choose a Spanish Jamón

Written by: Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris and hanging hamsI remember walking into the Museo del Jamón in Madrid, a restaurant with literally hundreds of hams hanging behind the bar and all around the customers! That was when I realized how much jamón is venerated in Spain. It is more than great ham; it is at the center of Spanish cuisine and culture. And there is a reason – jamón is arguably the finest cured ham in the world!

To bring this spirit home, I love to feature a whole jamón at parties or holiday gatherings as a centerpiece where my guests can try their hand at cutting slices for themselves. Over the years I’ve gotten a lot of questions about Spanish ham, so here are some answers to help you choose a great jamón and care for it correctly.

What are the types of Spanish Jamón?

There are three main types of ham in Spain: Serrano, Ibérico and Ibérico de Bellota.

1. Jamón Serrano, which means ‘mountain cured,’ is the most common and least expensive. Made from normal pork, usually Duroc or Landrace breed, these jamones are aged for 12 to 24 months. They have a mild flavor with a pleasant salt level.

Santiago Martin of Embutodos Fermin 2. Jamón Ibérico is made from the Ibérico breed pigs, indigenous to the Iberian Peninsula. Jamón Ibérico can be from farm-raised or pasture-raised pork and is aged for at least two years. It has a deep red color and a full, complex flavor from extended aging. I prefer hams from pasture-raised pork, which have a more complex flavor.

3. Jamón Ibérico de Bellota comes from Ibérico pigs that are pasture-raised in the ‘dehesa’ forest, where they eat a huge amount of sweet acorns – called ‘bellotas’ in Spanish. Because the acorns are only available in the fall, only a select group of pigs have access to this acorn feast. The acorns are packed with antioxidants which transform into oleic acid during the curing process - the same healthful fat found in olive oil. These hams are aged for two to four years, but we have heard of hams aged seven years or longer! Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is the masterpiece of ham, and each marbled slice is a concert of intense flavors.

Which type of Spanish ham should you choose?

-Serrano ham is enjoyed every day in Spain. I like to nibble on a few slices with a glass of wine while talking with friends, but it is also delicious added to dishes like salads, sautéed vegetables or served with eggs and potatoes. It is also the most popular addition to the Spanish bocadillo sandwich – basically a loaf of great Spanish bread cut in half, drizzled with olive oil with paper thin slices of Jamón Serrano.

-Jamón Ibérico is more of a gourmet event and is typically served on a warm plate with good bread and a bottle of fine wine. It also makes for a fabulous bocadillo, but it is not usually used in cooking.

-Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is the ultimate in Spanish jamón and is almost always served very thinly sliced and savored by itself or with a bowl of almonds or olives.

slicing a ham on a ham standShould I buy a whole Spanish ham, or buy it pre-sliced?

To enjoy jamón at its finest, slicing from a bone-in leg is the best. If you plan to have a party or holiday gathering, a whole jamón is a great centerpiece and you will have plenty of friends to help out. Whole hams also last for weeks, so you can cut fresh slices every day.

That said, not all of us can manage a 15-pound leg of ham. That is why we also slice jamón fresh at La Tienda, packed in nitrogen flushed trays to preserve quality and flavor. We also offer center-cut boneless pieces if you want to carve your own slices, but don’t need a whole ham.

How do I store Spanish ham?

Thousands of years ago, jamón was invented as a way to preserve precious pork for later in the year – there were no refrigerators back then! Sea salt and careful aging transform the pork, decreasing the water activity and protecting it from spoilage. Because of this, jamón can keep for weeks or months if stored properly.

Bone-in Ham Storage:

A whole ham on the bone can be stored in a cool, dry place for months with no negative effects other than a bit of harmless mold on the surface. When you receive a bone-in ham, remove it from the plastic wrap and mount it in a ham holder. I like to let my jamón acclimate for a day or two at room temperature. Once you start slicing the ham, cover the cut surface with plastic wrap and a cloth to keep it from drying out. It is best to slice your ham daily. If the slicing surface gets moldy or dry, simply cut off the top slice to access the tasty ham underneath. A bone-in ham can be stored on the counter for weeks if cared for correctly.

Boneless Ham Storage:

sliced ham on a plate with olives and peppersBoneless hams need to be stored in the refrigerator since the curing process stops once the bone is removed. Be sure to wrap the jamón carefully in plastic wrap after each slicing session. If you want to cut your ham using a mechanical slicer, be sure the jamón is well chilled. They can last for weeks in refrigeration, but they may pick up a touch of harmless mold which can be wiped or carved away.

Pre-sliced Jamón Storage:

Sliced Spanish ham should be eaten quickly after the package is opened, which is never a problem at my house! Consume within a couple of days and cover tightly in plastic wrap for storage.

Do I need a ham holder?

If you are slicing a whole ham, a holder is highly recommended. I once saw a master ham carver in Jabugo hold a whole ham in the air with one hand, and slice with the other, but that is best left to professionals! A holder allows you to safely cut thin slices and carve every last part of the ham. We offer holders for both bone-in and boneless hams.

Does jamón have a lot of fat?

Spanish hams have a protective layer of fat that covers the ham and keeps it tender and delicious. The fat can be up to two inches thick in some areas. Before carving, it is important to cut away the outer fat which can be oxidized and won’t taste very good. That said, in Spain they always include a little clean, white fat on each slice which holds a lot of flavor. My daughter once declared the she likes the white meat on the jamón the best!

hams hanging in the marketHow does jamón differ from other types of ham?

There are many cured hams in the world, including Prosciutto di Parma from Italy, Bayonne from France and Smithfield from Virginia, to name a few. Spanish jamón is very lightly salted and never smoked. Jamón Serrano is generally aged longer than other European hams for a firmer texture and more intense ham flavor. But the Ibérico and Ibérico de Bellota hams are the most distinct. The special Ibérico breed pigs produce an intensely flavorful ham with a ruby color. And the acorn-fed ‘bellota’ hams are truly exceptional, with a rich nutty flavor and a marbling that melts at room temperature.

Jamón is a central part of Spanish culture and cuisine, and you will find it featured in almost every restaurant and bar from Bilbao to Barcelona. Whether you decide on an impressive whole bone-in ham or a platter of slices, jamón is the best way to taste the essence of Spain.

¡Buen Provecho!

Jonathan Harris

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