So you’ve come to Malaga for holidays and you want to buy cured ham to take back home as gifts or just to treat yourself. But when you get to the supermarket or the butcher, you realize there are so many options and price ranges, that you find yourself lost and overwhelmed.
I won’t tell you which one is better, since everyone’s taste is different. But since producers and marketers are so creative at making a product sound (or look) like something it is not, I can tell you what to look for when buying Jamón so you know exactly what you are paying for.
Jamón Ibérico de Bellota (Acorn-fed Iberian Ham)
This is the best and most expensive of the cured hams produced in Spain, with prices going well over 80€ per kilo. Now every package of cured ham claims that their product is Iberian, or mention Bellota (acorn) in color, but how exactly do you know these claims are true?
Let’s start by saying that Iberian ham is a breed of pigs from the iberian peninsula that is most recognizable by having black paws. So, just by being Iberian, a ham isn’t necessarily good. The same happens with acorn: the best hams come from pigs that are free-range, acorn-fed (bellota), others are fed a mix of grains in free-range (cebo extensivo), and others grains in a reduced, intensive weight-gaining matter (cebo intensivo).
Now when looking at Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, you have to read the package to see how much (or how little) that pig has been fed acorn, because undoubtedly, this will determine quality… and price.
How can we distinguish good Jamón from bad Jamón
First of all, good jamón ibérico comes from the areas of Salamanca, Extremadura, Huelva, Cordoba and the north of Seville. If someone is trying to sell you good expensive jamón, and the label doesn’t say it comes from one of those areas, walk away.
Second, all whole hams have a color-coded label indicating, purity of race and what they were fed. I recommend you buy these as you can see this label. If you’re getting your ham from a well-respected butcher, they will cut/slice as much ham as you want and then vacuum-seal it for better transportation and storing.
A piece of Jamón with black label means that it comes from 100% Iberian pig and acorn fed. The red label means that the pig has at least 50%-75% purity of race and is free-range acorn-fed. Green label means that the pig has been fed grains, but in fields, therefore, it has had some exercise and intramuscular fat. Lastly, you will find white label, which means the pig has been fed grains in an intensive manner, without ever seeing a field or an acorn. Evidently this is the most common and cheapest ham, and it doesn’t mean that it is bad, but you better know your facts before heading to the store and spending a big chunk of money on a ham that might not be to your expectations.
Difference between Jamón and Paletilla or Paleta
Paleta or paletilla is the front leg of the pig. This piece has a different distribution of the fat. It also needs less time to cure as it is smaller, therefore flavors don’t develop as much as in ham. The jamón you buy has to have deep colors in the flesh, and small threads of fat. It should also have small white spots, this is crystalized salt which indicates a longer curation period.
Since fat is what gives flavor to jamón, you want to see lots of it in small quantities in the flesh as opposed to big lines of fat between muscle. This is what jamón from grain-raised pigs would look like. Also, if you are given a slice to try jamón, test to see if the fat melts between your fingers, like chocolate would. That is what happens with fat from acorn-fed pigs. The fat from lesser quality jamón, will leave your fingers greasy, but will stay more intact.
Once you get back home and want to eat your jamón ibérico and indulge, remember to eat it at room temperature. If you bought it vacuum-sealed, you don’t even have to store it in your fridge, a dark, dry pantry will do just fine.