Serrano Ham: From Birth to Consumption
Serrano Ham is one of Spain’s most outstanding food products and one of
the things that Spain is famous for. The
word "serrano” in Spanish refers to the sierra, or mountains. Jamón
Serrano is traditionally cured in mountainous environments where very cold
dry winters, low humidity and an abundance of fresh air are a prominent
feature. These conditions are essential if you want to produce
a true Serrano Ham.
is a Serrano Ham?
is the cured leg of a pig and there are many types and qualities of Serrano
ham. The most famous names regarding the Spanish ham are the Jamón
Serrano and the Jamón Ibérico. The varieties of ham come
from the types of pig, how that pig is fed, its lifestyle and conditions
The best of
the Spanish pigs is the Iberian pig. These pigs are very special
indeed and produce the most famous of Spanish cured hams. Only the
hams that come from these pigs can be called Jamón Ibérico.
They are also known as "pata negra" which means black foot due to their
special appearance and only make up around 7% of Serrano Hams. The
resulting cured hams from these pigs is the best in the world due to their
diet, way of life and genetic make up.
Hams from the
Iberian pigs can be separated into three categories: The “Jamón
Ibérico de Bellota.” is the highest quality and has a distinctive
nutty taste due to its exclusive diet of acorns. These pigs are also
free range and live a life of luxury high in the mountains. Other
types of Iberian ham are the "Jamón Ibérico de Recebo" and
the "Jamón Ibérico". The main difference from
the "Bellota" ham is that these pigs are fed on usual feed. Not as
luxurious as the Bellota ham but still offering superb taste and texture.
ham comes from the ‘white pigs’. The meat they produce results in
a high quality ham, deep rooted in tradition. It is these pigs after
all which provide the hams most likely to be found in bars, restaurants
and indeed in the home. Although pretty mundane compared to
their black footed cousins, the “common” Serrano ham provides that unique
taste of the real Spain, not likened to anything else.
How is the
November the traditional “matanza” or sacrifice of the pigs takes place.
After this the fore and hind legs of the pigs are prepared for becoming
the Serrano ham. The first process is known as the salting where
the hams are packed in piles of salt to aid the preservation process.
The amount of time the hams remain in the salt depends on the size of the
ham but it is generally around 24-48 hours per kilo. This first stage is
regulated very carefully to ensure the hams are not left in the salt for
The next stage
of the curing process is called ‘asentamiento.’
The hams are continued
to be hung (traditionally on knotted rope) for a minimum of 12 months.
During this time the hams begin to take on the "cured" qualities, yellow
fat and dark red meat. The slow curing is essential to allow the
hams to adapt to natural conditions which is why cold dry winters and low
humidity are of paramount importance in the creation of a perfect Serrano
ham. During the early stages of this process the hams will be covered
in a mould which is crucial to the curing process, enhances flavour and
helps make the Serrano Ham what it is.
This is when
the salt is cleaned off and the hams are hung for an initial period of
1 to 2 months. During this time the temperature remains between
5 and 10 degrees with a humidity of 75-80%. This first stage
is important because the moisture is dried out which means the ham and
the salt infuse together to concentrate the flavour.
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part in a series of short practical articles (very general in scope) for
people who plan on visiting or living in Spain, written with the intention
of pointing out aspects of Spanish life that may be challenging to foreigners.
part in a series of short practical articles pointing out aspects of Spanish
life that may be challenging to people who plan on visiting or living in
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The final stage
of the curing process is called ‘maduracion’ and takes place during the
last month or so. During this all important last stage, temperature
and humidity are increased considerably to allow the fat to filter evenly
through the ham, further concentrating the flavour. By the time the
hams reach the final stage of the curing process, the meat will be perfectly
cured and they will have lost up to 40% of their original weight.
ready to eat, many hams are transferred to bodegas or cellars to be allowed
to mature even more. Traditionally these “bodegas” were caves because
the conditions inside are perfect for a maturing ham – constant temperature,
airy and dry, indeed many hams even today undergo the whole curing process
in a cave.
process is also instrumental in the naming of the ham:-
or “curado” ham for example has been cured for 12-14 months; a “reserva
ham” has been cured for 14-18 months and a “gran reserva” over 18 months.
The various types of “Iberian” hams can be cured for up to an extra two
years resulting in a melt in the mouth texture of deep red meat and an
exquisite nutty flavour due to the acorn diet of the Iberian pig.
A good ham is similar to a good wine - the longer the curing process,
the more intense the aroma and flavour.
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When you buy
a whole leg Serrano ham it will be covered in rind and usually protected
by a breathable “ham sock”. The ham can be kept hanging like this
in a cool place for about a year if you don’t need to carve it straight
away. Once you’ve started cutting your ham it is best to eat it within
six to eight weeks.
It is important
to cover any exposed areas of meat to keep it fresh and prevent it from
drying out. The best way to do this is to keep the strips of rind and fat
that you cut off to start with and re-cover the exposed meat as you go
along. Another method is to smear a little olive oil over the meat
and serve your ham at room temperature. Keep your ham somewhere cool,
dry and airy. Serrano hams should never be kept in the refrigerator,
even after carving has begun. Unless you have a huge refrigerator,
it is simply not practical but the ham is supposed to be stored and eaten
at room temperature. Apart from convenience, this is why in Spanish
bars and restaurants the ham is always on display in its stand. If
you do have to store your ham in the refrigerator you must remove it and
leave it at room temperature to acclimatise before carving and serving.
However the best thing about the Serrano Ham is that it can be kept in
an accessible place, so it is always on hand when you fancy a slice or
The only way
to store and carve your ham is to place it in a ham stand called a ‘Jamonero’.
This special stand ensures the ham is secure while you carve, very important
from a safety point of view. Also this means your ham is always accessible
and ready to carve at all times.
Place the ham
in the ham stand and secure using the spike on the base and the screws
in the holder. Next, make a deep cut around five inches down from
the hoof using a sharp strong knife.
First of all,
remove the fat from the body of the ham depending on how much is to be
cut. Only remove the section of rind where you plan to begin slicing.
If you remove too much rind the meat can dry out.
the edge of the exposed meat cut away the fat at a forty-five degree angle,
this will leave you with a "ridge" of meat. Retain the fat for placing
over the exposed meat when finished. Once you’ve removed the rind,
you can begin slicing. Again, using traditional Spanish “tools” is
the only way to ensure the ham is cut correctly. The Spanish ham
knife or “jamonero” (same as the stand) is long, narrow, flexible and very
vary sharp. It is essential to use this type of knife to achieve
the all important wafer thin slices of ham. You know you are on the
right track when you can see the blade through the slices you are cutting.
start at the narrowest part of the ham as here there is very little fat
so this is the part that will dry out first. Using your flexible
ham knife, cut along the ham as straight as possible. When you have
removed the meat from this section, turn the ham over and repeat the process
on the other side. When both sides are finished you can work on the
tip of the ham, always cutting along the length of the bone. The
tip of the ham has a slightly stronger taste because while the hams are
hanging during curing, this is where the fat and salt concentrates.
When you have removed all the meat you can also "scrape" the bone with
a sharp knife to get the last of the meat from the fibula. The remaining
bone can be used to make a lovely stock, ideal for soups and stews.
it is time to enjoy those wafer thin slices of your delicious ham.
The best way is to serve on a plate with a drizzle of olive oil.
Ideal partners to Serrano Ham are almonds or chunks of melon.
For more information
on Serrano and Ibérico Hams, go to: www.orceserranohams.com
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