What You Have To Know About Jamon Ibérico


December 2007 was probably the best holiday season for foodies and ham lovers, as this was the first time jamones ibéricos were sold in the United States. Even better, in July of the following year, the prized jamon ibérico de bellota was introduced into the country. Often referred to as the finest ham in the world, these ancient Spanish hams are my favorite cured meats.

There are different types of ibérico hams depending on the pigs' diet:

1. Jamón ibérico de cebo, orjamón ibérico: This ham is made from pigs with a diet consisting of only grains. This ham is cured for about 2 years. 

2. Jamón ibérico de recebo: This one is made of pigs with a diet consisting of both acorns and grains. This ham is cured for about 2 years. 

SURPRISE FUN FACT: The process of heating, cooling, salting, and drying the Jamón ibérico de bellota breaks down the pigs' fat. Due to the pigs' acorn diet, the meat is filled with antioxidants. Thus, the saturated fats are transformed into healthy mono-saturated fats, which are high in oleic acid. This causes Jamón ibérico de bellota to be high in HDL, or good cholesterol, and is helpful in preventing heart disease. BOOM. SCIENCE. 

Spanish Black Pig. Source:  Steve Slater

Spanish Black Pig. Source: Steve Slater

The final product will be dark red and marbled with streaks of fat. The ham should be sliced thinly on a warm plate. The Ibérico ham will taste sweet and nutty with just enough salty flavor. You should be able to tell immediately that the marbling on the meat creates a melt-in-your-mouth experience. Unopened packages of Ibérico ham can be stored for a few months. 

Once the package of Ibérico ham is opened, it should be consumed within two days. 

The ibérico pig is large with thin legs and a long nose. They have characteristic black hooves that signify its authenticity. Ibérico ham is also known as "pata negra", meaning "black leg", for this reason. Since ibérico pigs are much fatter than other pigs, they have much nicer marbling and take longer to cure. As a result, the ham has a tasty and sweet, yet complex flavor. 

3. Jamón ibérico de bellota: This is the ham of all hams. This ham is made from free-range pigs that are set free during the fall and winter seasons when the oak trees in the pastures and forests drop acorns. These pigs will naturally eat only acorns. The acorn diet and the added exercise contribute to the beautifully marbled meat and intense flavor. Usually, these hams are cured for about 3 years. 

Jamón ibérico de bellota can cost up to $100 per pound, which is almost double the price of normal ibérico ham (usually priced at $52 per pound). 

Source:  Justus Hayes.

The Maturing Process

The special black Ibérico pigs are carefully maintained and grown until they are "sacrificed". The pigs live in an open sky environment where they are free to roam "la dehesa", or oak forests.

During the bulking-up stage, the pigs eat up to 20 pounds of acorns each day. This translates into a two pound gain in weight each day. By allowing the pigs to roam the forests, the fat becomes marbled into the muscle. These Ibérico pigs are grown this way for two years before slaughter. 

The Curing Process:

Once the hams are "sacrificed" and salted, they are cured in drying chambers for at least two years. Over time, the fat will melt away and turn into mono-saturated fats. The pig is so well-dieted and marbled that the curing process brings out all the flavors of the meat.