If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve tasted or heard about Spanish jamon (pronounced ham-on). Spanish jamon is it gastronomic delicacy known worldwide. It only comes from Spain, home to centuries of experience curing pork, a particular climate, and most importantly, the inimitable Iberian pig.
Served in wafer-thin slices at room temperature, jamon is a magical, almost mystical delicacy. The subtle, nutty flavor with buttery undertones combines with a velvety texture that melts on your tongue.
To understand jamon, consider that it is similar to fine wine. Wine can be made from different varieties of grapes grown in different regions with different soils and climates, and be prepared and aged using a range of techniques for variable amounts of time. Jamon is made from different kinds of pigs raised under differing conditions, comes from different regions with particular flora that constitute parts of the pigs’ diet, and is cured for varying amounts of time in different climates. Let’s break it down.
To begin with, there are two basic kinds of jamon. Serrano jamon, the least expensive variety, is made from white pigs, the kind you are used to seeing on farms around the world. It is salt-cured, naturally aged, made from the front and back legs, and doesn’t require cooking. It is similar to Italian prosciutto, except that it is almost always cured for far longer. This is the tasty jamon you find in ham sandwiches at Spanish corner bars. It is a staple of the Spanish diet and it is delicious.
The second kind, Iberico Jamon, is where things get interesting. It is made from the Iberian, or pata negra (black-footed) pig, an animal unique to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and closely related to the Mediterranean wild boar. These pigs are smaller, leaner, and more difficult to raise than their white counterparts. They also yield a jamon that has become famous worldwide for its complex and subtle flavours. Like Serrano jamon, Iberico Jamon is made from the front and back legs, is salt-cured and aged, and doesn’t require cooking. It has no equivalent anywhere else.
To make Iberico pigs easier to raise, many producers crossbreed them with a hardy breed of white pig known as the Duroc. Iberico jamon is classified according to its percentage of Iberico heritage, with 100% Iberico being the most sought after variety.
At JamonExperts, we follow the official classification system by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture. This requires that all jamon be labeled according to the following four designations:
White Label – minimum 50% Iberico, grain-fed. For the most part, these pigs live in barns. This is the least expensive variety of Iberico Jamon.
Green Label – minimum 50% Iberico, free-range, diet of grain, wild plants & herbs. Similar to white label, except that these pigs grow up in fields and get a lot more exercise. This jamon tends to be leaner and a bit more expensive.
Red Label – minimum 50% Iberico, free-range, diet of acorns, wild plants & herbs. These pigs spend much of their lives roaming Spain’s vast scrub oak forests, foraging for their own food. Wild acorns are their favorite dish. The acorn diet gives the jamon its famous nutty flavor and buttery consistency. This jamon is known in Spanish as Jamón Ibérico de Bellota.
Black Label – 100% Iberico, free-range, diet of acorns, wild plants & herbs. This Jamón Ibérico de Bellota is the pinnacle of Spanish gastronomy and is coveted worldwide.
All varieties of Serrano and Iberico ham can be made from the front or back legs of the pig. There are some important differences between these two cuts.
Front leg jamones (aka shoulder jamon, or paleta in Spanish) are smaller, usually weighing between 4 and 6kg. Being smaller, they aren’t cured as long as their back leg counterparts, which generally leads to a lighter palette of flavours. Due to the large shoulder blade bone and a generous amount of fat, a bone-in front leg jamon usually contains about 40% tasty jamon by weight when properly sliced. As they are less expensive overall, front leg jamones are very popular in Spain as an everyday household staple. A great way to get started.
Back leg jamones are much bigger, usually weighing between 6 and 9kg. They are cured for more time due to their weight and tend towards darker, more complex flavours. A properly sliced back leg jamon yields about 60% tasty jamon by weight. The higher price per kilo is partially offset by the higher yield. This is the jamon cut that Spain is famous for, ubiquitous during the holidays and at weddings and other celebrations.
For the classic Spanish experience, and in our opinion, the tastiest ham, choose a bone-in. There is a learning curve to slicing jamon, but getting good at it is satisfying. A ham stand is absolutely essential, as is a good flexible jamon or filleting knife. While the wooden ham stand that we offer with each bone-in jamon is adequate, we strongly recommend buying a good knife. If you decide to go with the free knife, make sure to sharpen it frequently as you slice. Also, remember never to use your jamon knife to cut the skin- use a sharp serrated knife for this instead. A bone-in jamon does not need to be refrigerated, it can stay in the kitchen covered with a cloth.
On the other hand, boneless jamon can be more convenient. Boneless jamones are easiest to slice on a slicer. To slice by hand, a very sharp knife is required to get the desired paper-thin slices. We have found that more often than not, a friendly local deli will be willing to slice a boneless jamon on their slicer for a few quid, or even for a few slices of jamon. Boneless jamon should be refrigerated after opening.
The most convenient option is pre-sliced ham. Vacuum-packed slices do not require refrigeration and they’re easy to take with you anywhere. While the flavour is not quite the same as freshly sliced bone-in jamon, sliced jamon is a great way to sample.