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SERRANO HAM - FROM BIRTH TO CONSUMPTION FOOD & COOKING ARTICLE


What is Serrano Ham?

The Spanish serrano ham is the cured hind leg of the pig. There are many types and grades of serrano ham depending on the area in which the animals were reared and hams cured to the length of the curing process distinguishing bodaga hams to grand reservas. Hams weigh around 7.5kg and full cured legs come with hoof. Boneless hams are also available (ideal for the catering industry) as well as ham pieces.

The hams are naturally cured, given the topography of Andalucia the term "air cured" is often used as the altitude can be up to 4000m above sea level. Winters are cold and summers very hot and with little humidity these conditions are perfect for naturally curing Spanish ham.

The serrano ham has been a vital ingredient in the staple diet for generations and although these hams remain an economical purchase given the sheer amount of meat they produce they are now commonly regarded as a "gourmet" meat product particularly in countries outside Spain.

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The Pigs

There are three main breeds of hog that make the serrano ham, these are the Large White, Duroc and Landrace. The pigs from which the ham is produced should not be confused with Iberian hogs which produce the world famous Iberico hams. The latter are a very different ham and come from a different type of hog accounting for only 6 - 7 % of ham production in Spain, you may know these hams as black footed or pata negra. However it is worth noting that not all Iberian pigs have black hooves and the term "pata negra is now deemed unsuitable as a reference to Andalucias D.O Iberian hams.

Iberian hogs are related to the wild boar and in some cases acorn fed resulting in the exquisite Iberico ham however the humble serrano ham, (which is a different ham altogether) boasts various grades depending on how long it has been cured for.

Curing Process

There are no other ingredients involved in curing serrano hams except, salt, air and time. The salt used is called "sal gordo" or "fat salt". The hams are trimmed and any remaining blood pushed out from the leg before being buried in the salt. Times vary depending on the curing house but as a general rule the hams are buried for one day per kilo of weight or 10 - 12 days. (The fresh ham weighs considerably more pre cured and loses around 30 - 40% of its weight during the curing process.)

When the ham is removed from the salt it is then cleaned (a process called "asentamiento") and 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.

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 essential to create a perfect serrano ham. During the beginning stages of this process the hams will be covered in a mould which is essential to the curing process, enhances flavour and helps make the Serrano Ham what it is.

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.

Although now ready to eat, many hams are transferred to bodegas or cellars to be allowed to mature even more, in days gone by old "cave houses" were used to cure hams given the relatively constant temperature inside The traditional method of hanging hams on knotted rope which can still be seen in some establishments today is to hang the hams from the ceiling on hand tied knotted rope.

Grades of Serrano Ham

The most commonly bought serrano ham in Spain is the serrano ham "bodega" this ham is usually cured for a year and can be regarded as a standard example. There are however many Spanish serrano hams which are cured for much longer and the grade depends upon this length of time.

  • Bodega / Curado - 12/14 months
  • Reserva - 15/16 months
  • Grand Reserva - 16/20 months
  • Anejo - 24 months
View all Grades and Prices <click here>

The flavour and intensity of the meat varies a lot as does texture, older hams such as the grand reserva and anejo posess a far better texture and tend to have a tremendous depth of flavour, these hams are ideal with strong wines and cheeses. Bodega hams on the other hand are a mild flavoured ham, still possessing a nice aroma and flavour but a lighter ham, ideal for tapas, cooking and summer salads etc.

What about blue, red or black labels? The "etiqueta" is the circular label tied around the leg of the ham below the hoof; this usually bares the producer's logo and any other relevant information. Sometimes these labels are coloured and labelled for example "etiqueta negra" or "black label" this is simply an indication of curing time (black labels are normally cured for the longest i.e. Grand Reserva equivalent), the labels should also detail the minimum curing time of the ham.

Buying a Ham

Buying a serrano ham may at first appear to be a rather confusing operation! Certainly in Spain the customer will be spoiled for choice with a huge array of hams produced by different secaderos from different regions. Now though with the advent of the internet and online purchasing that decision has been made a lot easier thanks to accompanying information and retailers searching out the very best examples available. Hams can now also be exported from Spain throughout EU member states and some countries outside the EU.

Speak to any producer and their hams will be the ultimate best in the area, this however simply cannot be the case and with different curing times and salting duration the simplest way to gauge a good ham is to sample its flavour, this is of course impractical but a good delicatessen should be able to tell you where the ham originated, the name of the curing house, how long it has been cured for and its flavour and texture characteristics as well as other information found on the label (for example the CEE number)

Choosing the Best

There are other factors in choosing and buying the right ham. Its intended purpose - what will it be predominantly used for and how will it be consumed? For cooking and day to day tapas a 12 month cured serrano ham will suffice (also the most economical to buy) For personal consumption lets say with good wines or for prestigious functions a top of the range Anejo or grand reserva would be a better choice. Boneless hams and ham pieces are also suitable for catering and machine slicing as well as for personal enjoyment should a full leg be too big.

We must not leave out the "Paleta". The paleta is the smaller front leg usually weighing around 4.5 - 5.0 kilos. These small hams are cured in exactly the same way (although not for as long) as their larger cousins and produce the same flavour and aroma.

*The "V" Cut

Some secaderos cut their hams into a "V" this basically means that the rind has been removed from the ham although the fat remains. This practice is common on boneless hams and leaves a "V" shape on the back of the ham. The reason the skin is removed in this way is to make carving easier (in the case of boneless hams for machine carving). Full leg hams can have the skin removed in this way as well although the practice is increasingly less common. The removal of the skin plays no part in how the ham cures nor has any influence on its flavour, texture and aroma.

Nutrition

Serrano ham is an extremely healthy option, as said above these hams have played a nutritious role in the Spanish diet for decades. The meat is easily digested and contains vitamins B1 and B2, iron, phosphorus and proteins. Serrano ham come recommended as part of a healthy balanced diet.

Consumption in Brief

On its own the serrano ham is a true experience of Spain with tones and aroma reminiscent of the Mediterranean. Slicing the ham wafer thin is key to flavour and texture, however once sliced the ham needs to "breath" (just like a good wine) and in the case of refrigerated pieces brought to room temperature. A good tip is to leave the carved ham for ten minutes where it will begin to sweat - it is at this point that the sliced ham tastes its very best.

Tapas examples

Serrano ham is the ideal tapa, the most famous in Spain along with the humble olive! Serrano ham goes particularly well with the following:

  • Fruit (melon, peach, nectarine, grape)
  • Nuts (almonds, pistachio)
  • Broad Beans
  • Vine Tomatoes
  • Olive Oil

Recipe examples

Besides being Spain's most famous tapa the serrano ham can also be used in many recipes. The flavour of cured serrano ham in recipes really does add a Spanish twist! Some examples are:

  • Stuffed Chicken Breasts
  • Beef Granadina
  • Broccoli and Ham Quiche
  • Ham & Peas
  • Ham Croquettes

Storage

When your serrano ham arrives it will usually have rind on one side (*unless it has been cut in a "V" - see above) and should always come protected by a breathable "ham sock" (funda). The ham can be kept hanging like this in a cool place for about 4 months if you don't need to carve it straight away. Once you've started cutting your ham it is best to consume it within four to six weeks.

It is important to cover any exposed areas of meat to keep it fresh and prevent it from drying out. The most effective 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 before covering as this will help keep the meat moist.

Always store your ham away from humidity, 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.

The exception to the rule however is with boneless hams and ham pieces as these always come vacuum packed, because of this a low temperature is required. You can keep your vacuum packed ham in the fridge and protect it in the same way as described above.

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Carving

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. There are various models of ham stands available from professional rotating models to the basic, each has one purpose only and that is to secure the ham. As a general rule use a big ham stand for large, heavy hams to increase stability.

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 eight inches down from the hoof using a sharp strong knife.

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.

At 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.

Always 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.

Ham Bone

Even the most skilled ham carvers cannot remove 100% of the meat from the bone, however the bone makes a fantastic stock for soups and stews. The bone can be cut into four sections (inc hoof) discard the hoof and use the remaining three lengths of bone to boil up and make a very tasty soup, broth, casserole etc.

Useful Terminology

  • Jamon - Ham
  • Pata - Foot
  • Secadero - Curing House
  • Sal - Salt
  • Jamonero - Ham Stand
  • Jamonera - Ham Carving Knife
  • Funda - Muslin Protective sock
  • Deshuesado - Boneless
  • Bodega - Cellar (standard cured ham)
  • Anejo - "Aged"
  • Tapas - Small plates of food served with alcoholic drinks (usually free)

Article researched and written by Gayle M Hartley
& Iain Macdonald of
www.orceserranohams.com

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