Learn about this crown jewel of Spanish cuisine.
Jamón is at the heart of Iberian history, culture and cuisine. Spanish for cured ham, the delicacy is beloved from the markets of Barcelona to the tapas bars of Madrid to weddings in Bilbao and everywhere in between. Most Spanish households have a leg of ham on their countertop, just waiting to be sliced and snacked upon. Crafted according to strict quality controls and centuries-old tradition, Spain’s Jamón Ibérico and Jamón Serrano, and Portugal’s presunto do Alentejo, are among Europe’s most coveted artisanal foods. Fun fact: the average Spaniard enjoys more than 7 pounds of cured ham per year.
“Jamón is tradition,” says Rodrigo Duarte, who grew up curing hogs on his family farm in Portugal every winter. Now, Duarte raises Portuguese pigs in New Jersey, which he cures, prepares and sells under the Don Rodrigo brand. “It is family tradition that goes from generation to generation.”
Treasured Since Antiquity
Curing ham is an ancient practice. From the very beginning, crafting dry-cured ham has been simple—taking what nature provides to preserve and enrich pork. The recipe is nothing more complex than sea salt, the just-right environmental conditions and time.
“There’s just a few ingredients, so they have to be pristine,” says Jeffrey Weiss, author of “Charcutería: The Soul of Spain” and chef and owner of Las Vegas’ Valencian Gold. “There’s nothing to hide behind.” Weiss fell in love with charcuterie as a young chef, then spent a year traveling and cooking through Spain, where he deepened his jamón knowledge and passion.
One of the highlights of his year was participating in ritual matanzas, or slaughters, replete with family and friends, free-flowing alcohol and abundant feasts in Extremadura, a rugged region in western Spain. The winter rite was both a serious party and an assurance that there would be plenty of cured meat for the year ahead. “It’s a ritual that dates back a millennia,” says Weiss, “And a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Although the occasion is festive, there’s a serious thread at the heart of the matter. “If you’re going to understand this, you’re going to have to take a life,” says Weiss, who described the occasion as miles away from the Cryovaced meat in the grocery store where most of us get our meat. “These pigs are giving their life so that we can have life,” an almost sacred experience.
Hogs have been revered for as long as we have records. An ancient ritual with Germanic roots offered a wild boar every year to the God of Fertility to ask for prosperity in the New Year, and early Christians gifted jamón at Christmas as a symbol of abundance and celebration. Documents chronicle pigs bought and sold on the Iberian Peninsula even before Roman times. It was most likely the Romans who solidified its status as a delicacy, trading pigs and serving the meat at banquets for emperors.
Cato the Elder, Roman politician, writer and soldier, chronicled the specifics of layering ham legs between layers of sea salt for an early jamón recipe in the third century BC. Pliny the Elder praised jamón for its complexity, noting that “the flesh of these hogs has nearly 50 flavors.”
For centuries, jamón was a specialty reserved only for royalty and clergy—medieval monks filled their larders with the prized meats, a major source of wealth. It wasn’t until the 13th century that ham made its way to the everyman’s table, as breeding and slaughtering became a way for country farmers to feed their families.
Jamón Serrano is literally ”ham of the mountains,” a Spanish classic bursting with incredible depth of flavor. Ham was cured in mountainous areas with moderate climates that are warm and dry in the summer and cold in the winter, the perfect environment. Mountain, or “sierra” (serrano), air was (and still is) ideal for the gradual aging of meat.
To make this classic ham, hog legs are salted for two weeks, then dried in the fresh mountain air for about 18 months, during which time the meat acquires rich and complex flavor and a silky yet firm texture. These days, Jamón Serrano makes up about 90% of Spain’s annual ham production, most of it on a commercial scale. It bears the label of the Consorcio del Jamón Serrano Español, with an individual control number. The “S” in the shape of a ham branded as a seal is the guarantee that the Serrano ham has passed the rigorous standards of the Consorcio.
Eighteen months, or often more, is a long time. “That’s why it’s so different [than commercial production] and why it’s so much more money,” Duarte points out. “The effort and the time. If you break down the economics of the business plan, it’s super expensive. It’s very hard to make money. It’s a labor of love.”
Jamón Ibérico, sometimes known as ‘pata negra’ or ‘Jabugo,’ Ibérico is the name of the famous breed of black pig indigenous to Spain, and one of the world’s most beloved delicacies. The pig is a direct descendant of the wild boars that used to inhabit the Mediterranean basin many years ago, and these animals have the unique ability to develop fat infiltrations in their muscles, creating a perfect marbling effect. “Ibérico pork is raised with love, slaughtered with respect, marbled like the finest Kobe beef and loaded with the sort of flavor you simply cannot find anywhere else,” Weiss writes in Charcutería.
The farms where the pigs call home are called dehesas, hundreds of acres of forest partially converted to pasture, often hundreds of years old. The Ibéricos roam freely and happily, munching their way through wild acorn and cork forests. “Their diet is completely free range, the acorns supplemented only by grasses or fragrant herbs,” according to Weiss. The acorns imbue the meat and fat with a sweet, wonderful nutty flavor, and oleic acid, an omega-9 fatty acid known to improve heart health and metabolism. (For the health-conscious, jamón is a protein-packed snack with good-for-you monosaturated fats and no carbs.) Just as acorns are an essential part of the ham, so are the dehesas, where the pigs can roam freely, and their muscles can develop over time.
Fermin and Cinco Jotas are the two major brands that distribute Jamón Ibérico to the U.S. “It wasn’t until 2007 that the first legal jamones were ceremonially sliced at José Andrés’ Washington, D.C., restaurant, Jaleo,” Weiss writes.
In Portugal, Alentejo’s Black Iberian Pig (also called “black hoof”) is a specific breed, also descended from wild hogs and renowned for its marbling. Presunto do Alentejo is a succulent, flavorful ham made from the leg and shoulder of this breed. “The process has been controlled by the Portuguese government since the 1800s. You can take the process, tradition, time and effort in the product itself,” Duarte says. “It’s an explosion of so many unique flavors.”
In 2016, Duarte imported 10 Alentejo hogs from Portugal to New Jersey, with permission from the USDA. Raised in the rich Alentejo region, from which the gray-skinned breed gets its name, these hogs and salt are the only ingredients in his ham. “I also brought over 200 pounds of acorns from Portugal,” Duarte says. “It will take three years of curing until we can get a ham out of them; five years from getting the pigs until taking a bite of ham.”
Don’t Mess with Perfection
Weiss says, “slicing ham is an art form.” There’s even a name for the master who embarks on this precise work: a maestro cortador. The perfect slice of jamón is paper thin, about the size of a credit card, and has a mixture of fat and lean meat.
When you have the real deal—a lovingly cured piece of jamón—you want to do as little to it as possible. Eating cold jamón is ill-advised, sort of like drinking a warm glass of Champagne. At room temperature, jamón’s fat starts to melt luxuriously on your fingers and on your tongue. Every single step that goes into making this product is labor intensive, and the final luxury is the best and most delicious proof. “You can taste the authenticity,” says Duarte, “The transparency is in the taste.”
“I’m a purist,” Weiss proclaims, and he and Duarte agree that there’s nothing to do to this fine ham besides take your time enjoying it, perhaps with a glass of red wine and a fresh piece of crusty bread (even these things are bonus). Jamón and sherry make for a wonderful pairing, too, especially a dry vino or a crisp manzanilla. Remember and savor the work and care that went into every single slice.
Weiss also believes in “respecting the whole ham;” more than just the super luxury jamón is worth enjoying. At his restaurant Valencian Gold, he turns the pieces he can’t slice as nicely into Croquetas de Jamón, ham croquettes with a creamy center and a crispy exterior that make for excellent snacking. He uses ground pork fat in his burger blend and tops eggs with slivers of ham. It adds bursts of rich, nuanced flavor to everything it touches.
YIELD: about 15-20 croquetas
¼ lbs. butter (add 2 Tbsp chicken/duck fat if on hand)
¼ lbs. flour
¼ lb. Jamón ibérico, ground/blitzed in food processor
3 each eggs, hardboiled and ground/blitzed in food processor
¼ lb. chicken, pouched, ground/blitzed in food processor
1 qt. milk
Kosher salt to taste
1 Tbsp nutmeg freshly ground
6-8 eggs beaten for breading
Bread crumbs as needed
1. Heat butter and chicken/duck fat, if using, in a sauce pan until just melted and foamy.
2. Add the jamón and cook until rendered, about 2 minutes.
3. Add flour and cook until the flour doesn’t smell raw anymore, about 3 minutes.
4. Whisk in 1/3 of the milk until the mixture is simmering. Add the next 1/3 of the milk and bring to a simmer, then add the final 1/3 of the milk and bring to a simmer.
5. Continue cooking until the mixture is thick enough to easily coat a spoon, then add the chicken and fold in.
6. Add the hard-boiled eggs and fold in as well. Add the salt and nutmeg, then pour mixture in a baking dish and refrigerate until cold and set.
7. Using a cookie scoop, scoop the mixture into balls then form into ovals. Set up a breading station with the beaten eggs in one pan and the breadcrumbs in another. Place the ovals into breadcrumbs then into the egg then back into breadcrumbs. Lay finished croquetas on a sheet tray and then refrigerate overnight (or in the freezer, transferring to the refrigerator 24 hours before cooking).
8. Cook croquetas in fryer at 350 degrees F until golden brown and hot inside.