Spanish Hams

Jamón Iberico and Jamón Serrano are two famous Spanish hams (jamón means ham in Spanish).

Iberico ham (Jamón Iberico), also called “pata negra”, is a type of cured ham produced only in Spain. It is at least 75% black Iberian pig, also called the cerdo negro (black pig). According to Spain’s Denominación de Origen rules on food products jamón ibérico may be made from cross-bred pigs as long as they are at least 75% ibérico.

The pigs are allowed to roam in the pasture and oak groves to feed naturally on grass, herbs, acorns, and roots, until the slaughtering time approaches. At that point the diet may be strictly limited to acorns for the best quality jamón ibérico, or may be a mix of acorns and commercial feed for lesser qualities. Meat from those pigs exhibits a large amount of marbling which guarantees ham of the highest quality. Not surprisingly, Iberico hams are the most expensive hams in the world. Pigs are slaughtered at the age 8-9 months, having the weight of 150-170 kg (330-374 lbs.). Salt is added at 4-7% in relation to the weight of a ham.

Serrano Ham (Jamón Serrano) is made from the “Landrace” breed of white pig and are not to be confused with the much more expensive and entirely different Jamón ibérico. The manufacturing process remains similar to Iberico Ham, the main difference lies in the type of pork used.

Manufacturing process for Spanish Hams

1. Salting. Traditional production method uses only salt without adding nitrates, although often purified sea salt is mixed with common rock salt. Sea salt contains many minerals and can create different reactions with meat proteins and fats. The salt is added at 4-7% in relation to the weight of a ham. Using less salt may not prevent the growth of spoilage and pathogenic bacteria and will lower the final quality of the ham. Such an amount of salt immediately draws out some moisture from meat cells and this lowers the water activity of the meat. As a result a safety hurdle is created and the meat becomes bacteriologically stable in time. In order to prevent conditions for bacteria to grow, the salting process takes place at 40° F (4° C), 85-95% humidity. A rule of thumb calls for 2 days for each 1 kg of meat, for example the 8 kg (17.6 lbs) ham will be salted for 16 days. After the salting stage hams are thoroughly brushed off to remove excess salt.

2. Equalization. Equalization, sometimes called post-salting takes place at 37-42° F (3-6° C), 85-95% humidity and continues for about 40 days. Equalization is the time after the excess cure has been removed from the product, at the end of the cure contact period until the product is placed in the drying room and the drying period begins.

3. Drying/Ripening. This is the longest stage and lasts 10-12 months.

During this stage due to complex reactions between enzymes, meat proteins and fats, the ham develops its characteristic flavor and aroma. With time the ham loses moisture, but the salt remains inside increasing its proportional content. As the ham becomes more stable in time the temperatures are increased which increases the speed of internal reactions and decreases maturation time. The ripening continues in a few cycles: the temperature starts at 53-57° F (12-14° C), 60-80% humidity, and increases up to 75-93° (24-34° C), 70-90% humidity. The ripening takes about 5 months for Serrano Ham and 10 months for Iberico Ham. The high humidity creates better conditions for mold to develop which often happens. After ripening is completed, a thin layer of meat or fat is cut off from the surface of the ham with mold on it.

4. Storing. Then the hams are stored at around 53° F (12° C), 75% humidity for up to a year. For the highest quality Iberico hams, the entire process may take up to 2 years.

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