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10 Things you didn’t know about Iberico ham

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10 things you didn't know about Iberico ham

If you ask any Spaniard which food is the most typical and authentically Spanish, the answer is most likely going to be Iberico ham. This delicacy has started to become well known internationally after the U.S. allowed this type of ham to be imported into the country in 2005. Iberico Ham was not allowed in the U.S. until then and the first leg to be sold in America was done so at auction. It was a Fermin Iberico ham and ended up costing $26,600. That may be a bit excessive for one leg of ham, but it is that good. 

Table of Contents

What is Iberico Ham?

Iberico Ham is a type of Spanish salt-cured ham. Iberico ham is so revered and can get so expensive because the process of producing just one leg is long and painstaking. But what makes Iberico Ham Iberico Ham exactly? 

First off, not all pigs are created equal. Iberico is a breed of pig that is closely related to the wild boar. Once the pigs are near slaughtering age they are left out to feed free-range and famously gorge themselves on acorns which gives the meat its unique flavor profile.

Iberico pigs

The pigs roam free from October through February at the latest. How long they stay out will depend on the expertise of the farmer in judging when the pigs are fat enough and have eaten the right amount of acorns. The minimum weight gained by a pig has to be harvested is 46kg.

Once the pigs are brought back in some have gained enough weight to be harvested and others have to be sent out again to keep feeding. This creates another distinction between the pigs that are sent out and the ones that are taken.

The ones that are fat enough at this point are the premium pigs. The ones sent out to feed again are known as Cebo pigs that are also excellent but produce a lesser ham. Once the pigs are butchered, the legs are hung to dry. Iberico Ham is the longest cured ham available on the market and the process can take up to 4 years.

curing Iberico Ham

This is probably what you already knew about Iberico ham, now let’s get into some lesser-known facts: 

10 things you didn’t know about Iberico Ham 

There are several different types of salted cured ham from Spain, not all of which are Iberico. Again Iberico is a very specific breed and only pigs of this breed can produce Iberico ham. So:

Depending on how purebred the pig is there are different categories within Iberico ham.

You can tell them apart by the tag they carry. 

Black tag: this is the Mac Daddy. This is an acorn-fed 100% Iberico breed pig, the top of the line. 

Red tag: an acorn-fed pig that is either 75% Iberico breed or 50% Iberico breed. 

Green tag:  These free-range are Cebo pigs, so they have not only eaten acorns but when they were set back to fatten they did so roaming around in fields. There are 100% Iberico breed, 75% Iberico breed, and 50% Iberico breed varieties. 

White tag: These are also Cebo Iberian pigs but, when they were set aside to keep fattening, they did so in stables and were fattened with feed. These can also be either 100%, 75% or 50% Iberico breed. 

Iberico pigs don’t exclusively eat acorns

This factoid is pretty well known but it is worth repeating. People think that since the pigs are “acorn fed” this means that they only eat acorns, which is just not true.

These pigs eat a huge amount of acorns, this much is true, and the acorns give the meat its unique flavor for the most part. But the pigs are left to roam freely through oak groves and eat what they want for months on end. They happen to love acorns but they won’t say no to any other delicious morsel that crosses their path. 

There are 4 Iberico ham producing regions in Spain

The regions or in Spanish Denominación de Origen Protegido are: DOP Guijuelo (in the northern region of Salamanca), DOP Dehesa de Extremadura (located obviously in Extremadura), DOP Jabugo (located in Huelva) and DOP Los Pedroches (the youngest region, located in Córdoba). This means that in these regions Iberico pigs are raised, and that the methods and standards are high enough to produce Iberico Ham. 

This is similar to wine production in Spain. Tempranillo is a variety of grape that is used across the country, but Rioja wine, which uses tempranillo almost exclusively has to be from a specific geographical area and meet certain production and quality standards to be considered Rioja wine. Oddly enough there are wines produces in the region that is not DOP Rioja wine. Confused yet?  

Los Pedroches Iberico ham for example has to be bred and produced in the same region, meaning the pigs have to be grown in the same region as where the ham itself is later cured. These small details give the ham from these different regions their own particular flare. 

Only 1.25 pigs are allowed per hectare of Oak Grove

To allow each pig enough space, freedom, and food to produce optimal ham, farmers are only allowed one and a quarter of pigs per hectare of land that they own. 

This number may vary from year to year depending on the acorn production and if there is enough food to accommodate more pigs, but to ensure the best meat possible these pigs are treated like royalty until they are ready for harvest. 

The way this number is calculated is very complicated. It takes into account the number of trees, weather patterns, rainfall, etc. But the basic rule of thumb is that each pig should be able to have at least 1.000 kg of acorns all to themselves. 

Iberico pigs eat up to 10kg of acorns a day

Iberico pigs are voracious. When they know acorns are in season they go wild. They can choke down 10 kg of acorns a day and wash that down with another 2kg of grass. An average pig weighs about 100kg, which means they eat 12% of their body weight every day. 

A free-range pig like this can gain up to 800g a day. This way after 80 days of free-range they can gain up to 60kg before they are harvested. 

And keeping that weight on isn’t easy considering the pigs walk at least 6 km every day, during the winter months in search of food.  

The left leg is tastier than the right…is a myth

There is a myth that says that the left leg of an Iberico pig is tastier than the right, which just isn’t true. the rumor got started because people believed that Iberico pigs only slept on their right side, which also meant that they would get up using their right legs, making them slightly more muscular and tougher.

None of this is true of course. Iberico pigs sleep however they please, and there is 0 evidence that points to this being true. The only reason for differentiating between one or the other is which is easier for you to slice at home. 

There is a difference between the front legs and the hind legs

 Jamon refers exclusively to the hind legs of the animal. Paleta refers to the front legs, and the fact is that they are vastly different when it comes to ham.

The two have different muscular structures and completely different morphology. They also absorb slat differently and have different fat deposits. 

Paleta is usually described as more flavorful, because of its capacity to draw in slat in the curing process. Jamón on the other hand is described as juicier because of the high volume of intramuscular fat that it accumulates as the pig is feeding.

Both are absolutely delicious. It’s just up to you to decide which you prefer. 

3 Million Iberico Pigs are produced every year

Spain produces over 50 million pigs every year. Only 3 million can be designated as Iberico Pigs:

  • Of these 60% end up being Cebo pigs with a white tag. 
  • 20% will be designated with the green tag
  • Just over 10% will receive the red tag 
  • and just under 10% will receive the coveted black tag. 

The crystals that form inside the ham are a sign of high quality 

First off, maybe you didn’t know that when you cut open an Iberico ham, you should find some small crystal formations within the muscles. People often think these are impurities or that that shouldn’t be there for some reason, but this is not the case. 

Iberico ham detail

In fact, the crystals are a good sign. These small white spots are actually a crystallization of an amino acid called tiroxina that appears while the proteins are maturing. 

Iberico ham is extremely healthy 

It is odd to think that something so delicious and opulent can be healthy, but it is. 

Iberico pork has a much higher amount of monounsaturated fatty acids than regular pork. Without getting too scientific about it, 100% Iberian acorn feed pork is the best example of “good cholesterol” you can find in nature. It is also:

  • A very high-quality protein source.
  • It provides a high quantity of iron in comparison to other pork.
  • It is rich in vitamins.
  • Very low in salt.
  • It has a very high volume of natural antioxidants.
  • It is possibly one of the most complete and energy-balanced foods in the Mediterranean diet.

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