Spanish Ham: A Gourmet Treat

Welcome to the Spanish Cured Ham Web Page. The Page is designed to provide a reference point for one of Spain's best tasting, but lesser known agricultural products: Cured "Serrano" Ham. Produced using methods similar to those employed in Italy for making "Parma ham", or in France to produce "jambon cru"; the Spanish variety offers a unique taste experience, with its own special flavor, texture and aroma.

These hams are a key component in Spanish cuisine, and recent changes in import legislation have begun to make them available in Europe and other parts of the world. Served in thin slices, it makes an exquisite snack; and small amounts add a delightful flavor to a wide variety of dishes such as soups, vegetables, or pasta. Such is the variety and complexity in flavor, aroma and texture, that experts regularly organize tastings in much the same way as with wine. 

Table of Contents

*Production Methods, Types and Classes of Ham
*Recognized Spanish Ham "Denominations"
*Enjoying "Serrano"
*La Tienda: Spanish Ham and other products on the Web

Other Web Pages

[Spanish Wine * Olive Oil
Production Methods

Serrano means "from the mountains", as the cool dry mountain air offers the perfect conditions for the curing process. The process in fact involves three distinct phases:

1. The fresh hams are first trimmed and cleaned, then stacked like cordwood and covered with salt. This serves to draw off excess moisture and to preserve the meat from spoiling. This typically lasts 2 weeks.

2. The salt is washed off and the hams hung to dry and start the first curing phase. This phase serves to initiate the curing process, here (among other things) the fat begins to breakdown. This takes about 6 months.

3. Air drying - it is during this phase that the hams are hung in a cool, dry place, and where the distinct, subtle flavors and aromas develop. This lasts from 6 to 18 months, depending on the climate, as well as the size and type of ham being cured. The drying sheds ("secaderos") are usually built at higher elevations, thus the name "serrano".

There are three main factors that determine the quality - and of course the price - of the serrano hams:
Type of Hog
Feeding Conditions

There are two distinct cuts: the hind leg or "jamón" (ham), and the foreleg or "paleta" (shoulder). As we'll see a bit further on, there are also two different classes of hog grown for ham production: the native Iberian hog which makes for the highest quality, but only represents about 5% of the total production, and the more cost-effective "white hog" - normally of the Large White, Landrace, or Duroc strains and crosses.

Feeding conditions are an important factor in both production and quality. The best hams are produced from the long legged Iberian hogs, range fed and fattened on acorns in the cork-oak groves along the southern half of the border between Spain and Portugal. While range fed, Iberian hogs produce without a doubt the "creme de la creme" of Spanish hams, this method is costly, slow and not particularly productive. Thus, the large majority of hams in the marketplace are derrived from "white hogs". 

Spanish Ham "Denominations"

As it does for wine and other agricultural products, The Instituto Nacional de Denominaciones de Origin (INDO), maintains the "Denominación de Origin" (DO) program for cured ham. The DO is in fact quality control program, designed to insure the both the origin of the product, as well as it's production methods, raw materials, etc.

The INDO recognizes four distinct DO certified ham producing areas:

Dehesa de Extremadura
Province of Extremadura, just south of Guijuelo also bordering on Portugal. DO certified Dehesa de Extremadura hams (dehesa means "range"), are either from pure bred Iberian hogs, or Duroc crosses which are at least 75% Iberian bloodstock. There are a variety of quality levels which depend upon bloodstock, cut, and feeding/fattening conditions.
Province of Salamanca in west central Spain, close to the Portugese border. All hams which carry the DO Guijuelo label are made either from pure bred Iberian hogs, or Duroc crosses which are at least 75% Iberian bloodstock. There are two quality classes:

1.Jamón Ibérico de bellota - Range fattened on acorns ("bellotas" in Spanish), and marked with a red band.

2.Jamón Ibérico - Range fattened, diet supplemented with commercial feed, and marked with a yellow band.

Jamón de Huelva
Province of Huelva in Southwest Spain also bordering on Portugal. DO certified Jamón de Huelva hams, are either from pure bred Iberian hogs, or Duroc-Jersey crosses which are at least 75% Iberian bloodstock. There are a variety of quality levels which depend upon bloodstock, cut, and feeding/fattening conditions: bellota, recebo or pienso.
The entire province of Teruel (northeast Spain) is included in the DO Teruel production category. The air-curing must, however, take place at more than 800 meters above sea level. The hams here are all "white hogs" - Landrace, Duroc or Large White (and crosses). There are no cork-oak ranges in the Teruel area, so these are fed and fattened with commercial feeds. The cool dry climate however makes things just right for producing high quality "serrano" hams.

Enjoying "Serrano"

Like anything that's really good, Spanish ham is easy to enjoy. As time goes on, this page will be expanded to include lots more. But for now let's consider three important aspects to getting the most out of this gourmet treat:

1.Temperature: This is definitely a "room temperature" product. To get the best of flavor and aroma, store and serve at room temperature. It's best stored in a cool dry place. Refrigerate only if absolutely necessary, and be sure to let it acclimate several hours before serving.

2.Serving: As a starter or snack, serve in very thin, freshly cut bite-sized slices. Exposure to the air drys, and more importantly dissipates those special aromas, so do slice just before you serve - and it's OK to eat with your fingers!

3.Cooking with Ham: The taste of serrano ham makes a great flavor addition to all sorts of dishes. Finely diced and very lightly fried, it adds a special touch (like bacon bits) to soups and salads. A great Spanish cooking technique - "rehogado con jamón" - will work any where: Lightly fry diced ham in olive oil, then sauté your favorite cooked vegetable in the mixture. It works great with artichokes, green beans, brussel sprouts, etc. Diced to medium size, it also makes a great addition to your favorite spaghetti sauce recipe, or an omelette. Lightly fried slices do wonders for ham and eggs.


Technical data provided by INDO (Instituto Nacional de Denominaciones de Origen).
Additional info by J.Riis, all rights reserved.
Last update: 21 July 1998
JRnet Please feel free to write if you require any further information, or would like to offer comments.