Jamón Ibérico: A Classic of Spanish Cuisine

Myths, terms and serving suggestions for this classic Spanish food, which can be enjoyed at any time of day, either on its own or to accompany something else.

By Real Academia de Gastronomía

Real Academia de la Gastronomía

Jamón ibérico de bellota: A unique kind of hamReal Academia de Gastronomía

Jamón Ibérico de Bellota: A Unique Kind of Ham

There are many different types of ham: Italy's most famous is "Prosciutto di Parma," France has Ardenne Dry Ham and Bayonne Ham, while Portugal's best-known is "Presunto." However, none of these has achieved the same level of international recognition as Jamón Ibérico de Bellota (acorn-fed Iberian ham), which is only produced in Spain.

The different breeds of pig used are all descended from Iberian stock. These breeds, combined with an acorn-based diet and the process of maturing the meat, give this product its exceptional flavor and nutritional value.

Iberic ham for breakfastReal Academia de Gastronomía

Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

A slice of Jamón Ibérico is a welcome treat no matter what time of day it is—and even more so when it comes from a purebred pig. In Spain, Jamón Ibérico is eaten on all sorts of occasions and in a variety of ways: as an appetizer or starter with breadsticks, on toast with tomato for breakfast, or as an accompaniment to particular dishes.

Iberian pigs in the Dehesa fieldsOriginal Source: DO Guijuelo

Species and food matter

Specie and nutrition are fundamental factors that influence the quality of Iberian ham, and its classification. The sumum of excellence is the pure Iberian acorn, which is identified by the black tape.

Iberian pigs in the Dehesa fieldsOriginal Source: Arturo Sánchez

Classification by Breed: Pure Iberian or Crossbreed

The Spanish Quality Standard for Iberian Meat, Ham, Shoulder, and Loin (Royal Decree 4/2014), known as the "Iberian Quality Standard," stipulates that, depending on the purity of the breed, pigs may be classified as either 50%, 75%, or 100% Iberian breed.

Traditional dry curing process of Iberian hamOriginal Source: Arturo Sánchez

Why Are Some Pigs Not 100% Iberian?

During the mid-1950s, some livestock breeders got rid of their pure Iberian pig stocks or crossed them with Duroc-Jersey pigs. One of the main reasons for this was the problems caused by over-exploitation, including infectious diseases such as swine fever.

Over the last few decades, hams produced from Iberian pigs—from shoulder to loin—have been considered a gastronomic delicacy, with increasing numbers of livestock farmers investing in purebred Iberian pigs.

AcornsReal Academia de Gastronomía

Classification by Diet

Depending on whether they are fed acorns or grain, the pigs are classified as "ibéricos de bellota" (acorn-fed pigs), "ibéricos cebo de campo" (pigs fed on both acorns and grain), or "ibéricos de cebo" (grain-fed pigs).

AcornsReal Academia de Gastronomía

Acorn-fed Iberian pigs spend their lives roaming the countryside, in an ecosystem known as the "dehesa" (a pasture or meadow). They eat grass and other natural resources until the autumn. Then, during the "montanera" period from October to February, they eat acorns that fall from the trees, including holm oaks, common oaks, cork oaks, and Portuguese oaks.

Acorns are rich in oleic acid and this, along with the breed itself, is the key to the distinctive flavor of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. Since there are limited quantities of acorns, they are given exclusively to purebred Iberian pigs.

Iberian pigs in the Dehesa fieldsReal Academia de Gastronomía

Corn- and grain-fed pigs usually live outdoors, and mainly eat a diet of cereal grains and pulses, although they also feed on the natural resources available in their "dehesa" or pasture.

Grain-fed pigs live in enclosures and their diet is based on fodder. They tend to be 50% Iberian breed.

Iberian ham slicesReal Academia de Gastronomía

How Can You Tell If a Ham Is Jamón Ibérico de Bellota?

Not all hams are the same and not all Iberian hams are purebred Jamón Ibérico de Bellota.

Traditional dry curing process of Iberian hamOriginal Source: Arturo Sánchez

The long black hoof and slender leg are what make a leg of Jamón Ibérico hanging in a shop window instantly recognizable.

To show that a leg of ham is certified as Jamón Ibérico de Bellota and meets the requirements of the Iberian Quality Standard, it is given a black label.

As for how it tastes, in the words of Juan Moll, head of Joël Robuchon's restaurants: "If it packs a real punch along the side of your tongue, it's Bellota."

Iberian ham slicesOriginal Source: Arturo Sánchez

Whether served on a plate or vacuum-packed in a plastic wrapper, the color of the meat is important: it should be a deep red, dark in the deepest areas, with a slight sheen; and the fat should be white.

There can sometimes also be some white, chalky-looking spots on the meat, which are the result of its long maturation process.

Traditional dry curing process of Iberian hamOriginal Source: Arturo Sánchez

The Parts of a Leg of Ham

"Jamones" (the back leg) and "paletas" (the front leg) have various sections, from which different shaped and sized pieces of ham are sliced.

The parts of a leg of hamOriginal Source: Joselito

The "maza" is the upper part (when looking at a leg of ham hoof-up) and is the meatiest and juiciest part of the ham, with the largest amount of fat.

The "contramaza," on the back of the ham, has a firmer texture and is full of flavor. There is less fat in this part, meaning that it is the first to harden.

The "codillo" is the part closest to the hoof. It is very juicy and difficult to cut because of the nerves that run through it, but when cut into thin slices or chunks, it is one of the most delicious parts of the ham.

The "punta" is found at the opposite end to the hoof. It is quite fatty and full of flavor. Slices taken from this part are small, and vary in size and shape.

Ham's pintxoReal Academia de Gastronomía

Eating Ham Is Good for You!

Jamón Ibérico can be incorporated into a healthy and balanced diet that includes the various food groups (vegetables, fruit, fish, meat, nuts, etc.).

Iberian ham and fried eggsReal Academia de Gastronomía

The energy content of ham essentially depends on the fat content of the leg in question.

When it comes to nutrients, Jamón Ibérico is a source of zinc, phosphorus, vitamins, and protein.

Iberian ham: A unique kind of hamReal Academia de Gastronomía

The proteins in Jamón Ibérico have a very high nutritional value, and contain all the essential amino acids. There is a higher concentration of protein and fat in ham than in the fresh meat from which it is derived, as a result of water being lost during the ham production process.

The fat content varies more than any other element from one ham to another, depending on the animal's breed, sex, and diet, and the age of the ham being eaten. It is the fat that gives each leg of ham its aroma, characteristic flavor, and texture.

Credits: Story

Text: María García, in collaboration with Ismael Diaz Yubero, Spain’s representative at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food Advisor for the Spanish Embassy in Rome. Member of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Image: David de Luis / Foods & Wines from Spain / Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade / Arturo Sánchez.

Acknowledgements: Rafael Ansón, president of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; María García and Caroline Verhille, contributors to the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy

This exhibition is part of the Spanish Gastronomy project jointly coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Credits: All media
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