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Madrid City in English
Sunday 18th of November 2018
Leah Rodrigues 1208 30th of July 2012 by admin 10th of January 2013
Photo (CC flickr): timsackton
Cured of the jamón lottery

What’s the difference between jamón Serrano and jamón Iberíco? What does a PGS label mean? And why is that jamón twice the price of the one next to it? investigates

If you walk into any Spanish supermarket you’re likely to be staggered by countless strings of sausages hanging overhead like holiday garlands or ubiquitous legs of jamón dangling from every conceivable space, let alone the ones being thinly sliced on jamoneros by expert butchers. They’re quintessential images and yet the selection can be overwhelming. In order to make educated and tastier food choices, a little knowledge is a necessity, and the following brief guide looks to remove some of the unknowns, and make a visit to a meat counter a little less intimidating. After all, there’s nothing worse than mumbling with indecision and uncertainty in front of a butcher who has access to a selection of sharp knives.

Pork, pork, and more pork
In Spain, the pig rules the culinary kingdom. Pork has been part of the Spanish diet for thousands of years, with written references to dry-cured ham dating back to the Roman Empire. Traditionally, Spanish families sacrificed their pig and began the curing process during the first weeks of winter. This ritual is called the matanza, and it was an occasion in which all family members participated, processing the pig for sausage, removing premium cuts for immediate consumption and covering the legs in salt to cure. This practice can still occasionally be found in some areas of Spain, but not surprisingly technological advancement means modern processing companies now cure meat all year long.

Know your quality indicators
On a menu or at the supermarket, aside from the price, you will see various key words that indicate the quality of the cured meat. These indicators usually show the breed of pig and its diet, and for how long the meat was cured.

Protected Geographical Status (PGS)—This label has resulted from a series of EU laws to protect regional foods by eliminating the misleading marketing of non-genuine products that may be inferior in quality and flavour. If you see this seal, you know you are getting the real deal.

Iberíco—Meat is from the pata negra or Iberian black pig. The pig can be cross bred but must be at least 50% Iberian black pig to be labelled as such. Cured meats made from this breed will cure between two and four years. Cured meats from the Iberíco pig, which is fed on acorns, are of the highest quality and the best flavour.

Serrano—Meat is from Landrace or Duroc breed of white pig. Cured meats are aged from 9 to 15 months.

Puro—Both parents of the pig were purebred.

Cebo—The pig was only fed grain. These pigs have probably spent their lives on a factory farm. Grain is used as feed because it fattens the pigs quickly, making for cheap jamón but of low quality.

Recebo—The pig was fed a mixture of acorns and grain.

Bellota—The pig was fed on only acorns, making for the best meat in texture and in taste. These pigs are released into oak forests, the dehesa, at ten months old and are allowed to roam for the next four months. This phase is called the montanera. On average, a pig raised in this condition will gain a kilo of fat every day. The pig’s unique diet of acorns combined with the curing process changes the saturated fats into healthy mono-unsaturated fats high in oleic acid. The only fat higher in oleic acid is olive oil. Hams made in this style will cure more than two years.

Know your meat
Embutidos—the general term for cured meat.

Chorizo—a cured sausage made from pork meat and fat, seasoned with paprika (pimentón) and salt. Its most distinctive quality is its deep red colour given by the paprika. Chorizo can be classified as spicy (picante) or sweet (dulce) depending on the kind of paprika used. There are several Spanish regional varieties that may be smoked or unsmoked with a myriad of aromatic ingredients. Can be fried or poached, or for a Galician touch simmered in cider.

Salchichón—a dry cured pork sausage similar to chorizo, but replacing the paprika with black pepper.

Lomo Embuchado—made from the pork loin that is marinated in herbs and spices and then air-dried. There is very little fat compared to other cured meats.Photo (CC flickr): Adam_Jones_PhD

Morcilla—a highly flavoured blood sausage made with a variety of ingredients depending on the region. The base is pork blood and pork fat; the morcilla de Burgos, the most famous, is seasoned with rice, onions, and salt. A sweet morcilla from Galicia contains almonds and raisins and is commonly served as a dessert. (Please don’t be deterred by the word “blood”. Try it before you make an opinion, it’s quite delicious.)

Jamón York—the pink ham we are accustomed to seeing in grocery stores and in sandwiches (or your normal off-the-shelf ham in the UK and Ireland).

Jamón Serrano—dry-cured, with an intense salty flavour. The Spanish enjoy Jamón Serrano for breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack. High quality hams are recognisable by a label from the Consorcio del Jamón Serrano Español (a big curvy S). This means that the hams have passed a series of quality standards, such as being cured for at least 252 days, and a Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG) certification.
Jamón Iberíco—the champion of all Spanish cured meats, Jamón Iberíco enjoys royal status in the Iberian Peninsula and throughout the world. The diet combined with the ageing process allows for the development of a symphony of flavours. A notable quality is the marvellous marbling of fat throughout each piece of meat that begins to melt the instant it touches your tongue. The flavour is less salty than Jamón Serrano and there is a hint of sweetness. The Jamón Iberíco de Bellota has a PGS (see above) throughout several regions in Spain.

Putting pork on your fork
Spain’s cured meats are one of the country’s gastronomical treasures that reflect its history, regions, and customs. To truly savour the array of flavours, invest in some quality varieties, and knowing what you are eating makes the journey of the palette all the more fulfilling.

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It's pimentón not pimento

Guest's picture

The chorizo is seasoned with "pimentón" (paprika) not pimiento (pepper, green, yellow or red)

Indeed it is. Thanks for

admin's picture

Indeed it is. Thanks for pointing that out! We've corrected the article.