Jamón Ibérico 101

Inside the Rich Rituals of Spain's Most Expensive Ham

Image via Mercado Jamon Iberico

In collaboration with our expert friends at Mimo Food, Journy is exploring Spanish cuisine's most prized ingredients. This week, we're putting the spotlight on jamón ibérico. Check out our previous features on sherry, tapas, and flamenco.

Jamón ibérico demands care. It demands money, time and thought. Slipping a silky slice into your mouth, you wouldn't immediately think of the attention that goes into raising, curing and preserving each leg of jamón ibérico. But from the skill it takes to carve a cured jamón to the EU laws that require no more than two pigs per football field of land, this rarified food hides a web of obsession, passion and art.

You would expect no less from the world's most expensive ham, which is so much more than Spain's answer to prosciutto. Journy asked Spanish food experts and our friends at Mimo Food to help us separate fact from fiction in the wild, wonderful word of jamón ibérico.

What is jamón ibérico?

Image via yosoynuts

Jamón ibérico is a breed of pig that is descended from the Mediterranean wild boar. They can grow up to 360 pounds and have high levels of intramuscular fat, leading to a rich and flavorful meat.

Not all ibérico ham comes from pure bred pigs. Ibérico pigs tend to produce small litters and take a long time to raise, driving the price up and making all ibérico-breeds rare. The Spanish government stipulates that jamón ibérico be produced from pigs with at least 50% ibérico genes in order to be labelled as such. You can find the percentage of ibérico a given type of ham is made from on the package.

The types of feed pigs are raised on also determines their classification. The most expensive of all is jamón ibérico di puro bellota, that is ibérico pigs fed only acorns. In addition to giving the meat a sweet, nutty flavor, an acorn-only diet gives the ham high-levels of oleic fats, similar to olive oil. 

The pigs may also be raised on acorns in combination with standard feed, which produces a less intense flavor and a cheaper price. You can also find jamón ibérico raised on standard feed or different breeds of pigs raised on only acorns. These are all sold under different labels according to EU law.

Producing jamón ibérico

Image via Pravdaverita

Ibérico pigs are native to Central and Southwestern Spain and Portugal, but Spain's most elite dehesas, pig farms, are concentrated in the rolling hills around Huelva and in Extremadura. Porqueros, pig rearers, argue that the dehesa is one of the most important aspects of raising jamón ibérico and distinguishes the flavor from similar products like prosciutto or jamón serrano. 

With several hectares of open space, pigs are allowed to roam free and eat whatever they please. 

Until the montanera, that is. During the period from October to January, pigs raised to be jamón ibérico de puro bellota eat only freshly fallen acorns until they reach the EU-certified weight of 160kg. To achieve this, each field will have at least 200 trees so that the pigs can eat up to 20 pounds of nuts per day. When not eating, the pigs run around, reaching distances of up to 14 kilometers per day, making them big but muscular.

Curing jamón ibérico

Jamón ibérico is aged for a period ranging from one to five years in climate-controlled rooms. The aging process is just as important for the taste as the feeding process. After slaughter, or sacrifice as locals call it, both the front and rear legs brine in Andalusian sea salt for a couple weeks (about a day per kilo of weight).

They are then washed and hung to dry for an extended period. During their aging time, the hams will be moved approximately three times per year around a large room with open windows designed to let the mountain breeze filter through. As they age, the fat from the acorns protects the meat from from turning dry and brittle. 

The total aging time depends on the type of pig, target price point and producer. Grain-fed hams will be aged for less time than acorn-fed ones, about two years compared to up to five, though ultimate aging time depends on the weight of the pig. During this period, both hams will lose approximately half their weight as water and fat drip away. 

Eating jamón ibérico

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So how does one eat the most expensive ham in the world? While a slice of crusty bread is really all you need, Spaniards love to serve the rich pork with everything from artichoke hearts to stews for an extra punch of salt. If you're traveling in Andalusia, you'll find plates served as an appetizer and ideal for nibbling alongside a glass of dry fino or manzanilla sherry.

Jamón ibérico should be served at room temperature. Take it out of the fridge approximately an hour before you serve it to allows the fat to soften and the flavors to open up.

Buying jamón ibérico

When shopping for jamón ibérico, it’s wise to be familiar with the different types you can find to ensure you’re getting what you paid for. The different varieties of jamón ibérico are:

  • 100% ibérico de bellota - Pure-bred jamón ibérico raised exclusively on acorns, sold with a black label.
  • Ibérico de bellota - Mixed-breed pigs with at least a 50% iberico genes that are raised on acorns only, also sold with a black label.
  • Ibérico cebo de campo - Free range ibérico pigs that are raised on acorns and feed, sold with a green label.
  • Ibérico cebo / jamón ibérico - Farm raised ibérico pigs that eat standard feed, sold under a white label.

Although jamón ibérico wasn't exported to the United States until 2007, it's quickly becoming the ham of choice for food-conscious Americans. High-end gourmet shops or Spanish specialty markets are the most likely to stock jamón ibérico. The best store will slice it by hand as opposed to machine, ensuring even cuts that vary in thickness and size according to the portion of the ham being carved.

Find out more about jamón ibérico and other fine Spanish ingredients from our friends, the experts at Mimo Food

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