Differences Between Serrano Ham And Iberian Ham

They may look the same but they differ in many ways. If you want to be clear about what you are buying when purchasing either of them, learn the differences between Serrano ham and Iberian ham.

They are made from pigs, but the similarities between Serrano ham and Iberian ham practically end here. The breed of animal, the way it is raised, the production process, the flavour and texture, even the quality controls are different for Serrano and Iberian ham. These controls are currently extremely rigorous and require that the final product is clearly identified, so that the labelling is enough for us to be clear about which ham we are buying in great detail. But so that you can understand what really distinguishes a Serrano ham from an Iberian ham, and why they have different flavours and prices, don’t miss this article.

What is Serrano ham?

Serrano ham is a pork product intended for food consumption. It is made from the animal’s hind legs, which are salted and dried. The adjective serrano comes from the tradition of raising these pigs in the mountains. The breed used for this type of ham is the white pig and its most common varieties are Duroc, Landrace, Large White and Pietrain. As its name indicates, this breed has white and delicate skin. They are genetically improved pigs to be very productive, generally raised on macro farms and fed only with feed.

What is Iberian ham?

The Iberian pig is a ham from a native Spanish breed. This breed is the only one authorised for producing Iberian ham. Its skin is darker than that of the white pig and thicker, and its body is well adapted to outdoor life. These pigs are raised in a completely different way to the white pig. They are fed with acorns and natural pastures, and they are left free in the pasture most of the time. This is what is known as extensive farming, that is, on large hectares.

Differences between Serrano ham and Iberian ham

There are many and significant differences between Serrano ham and Iberian ham: from the breed to the breeding method, its quality or its flavour, almost everything is different between Serrano and Iberian ham. Let’s look at these differences step by step and in detail.

Breed and type of pig, the key to ham

The so-called white pig is used to make Serrano ham. This term encompasses several breeds and varieties of pigs with similar qualities. The most common breeds of white pig are Landrace, Duroc, Pietrain or Large White. Landrace is a breed of Danish origin that adapts well to the environment and is perfect for industrial crossbreeding. It is commonly used in Spain for Trevélez or Teruel ham. Duroc is English and, like the previous one, is widely spread throughout the country. Pietrain is Belgian and its pigs are distinguished by having characteristic black spots on their white skin. Large White is English and another breed that improves its meat when crossbred. These animals have been genetically selected to be more productive, which is one of their main advantages.

The Iberian breed is the only one authorised to produce Iberian hams. It is native to the Iberian Peninsula. Therefore, Spain and Portugal are the exclusive producers of Iberian ham, as this breed is only found in their territory. An Iberian pig to be designated as such must have a purity equal to or greater than 50%. The most common non-Iberian breed to cross with an Iberian is the Duroc. These pigs have dark skin, some are hairy, and genetically better adapted to life in the wild. Those legs, by the way, are stronger and more stylised than those of the white pig, another fact by which they are recognisable. They can be found, above all, in the southwest of Andalusia, Extremadura and in the Portuguese Alentejo. The dehesa is the ecosystem where they are raised naturally, as it is full of grass and oaks and cork oaks, which give the precious acorns. The Iberian breed has a high capacity to infiltrate fat, another peculiarity that differentiates it from the white pig.

Feeding and breeding the animal, it’s all about acorns

White pigs are fed with enriched feed, which is basically made up of cereals such as barley or rye. Their development is rapid, due to their genetic manipulation, so they reach maturity in 8 months and must weigh between 90 and 110 kilos to be slaughtered. They live their entire lives on intensive farms, in small spaces.

Iberian pigs are raised and graze freely in the dehesas ( woodlands). This type of forest is typical of the Iberian Peninsula, where there is an abundance of pastures and bushes. For breeding Iberian pigs, a dehesa must have at least 10 trees per hectare. There, the pigs are fed on natural pastures and acorns (fruits of various species: holm oaks, cork oaks, gall oaks and melojo oaks). Acorns from holm oaks are usually the favourites of these animals. The Iberian breed develops more slowly than the white breed, and the animals cannot be slaughtered until they are 14 months old. Ideally, they should grow for at least 2 montaneras (the final stage of breeding), around 22 or 24 months, and weigh around 190 kilos before being slaughtered.

Processing processes and curing times, time for salt

After slaughter, the pieces (hams) are selected according to the standards required by the food industry. The next step in this selection is salting. This process is important, so it is done in rooms prepared for this purpose. All possible blood is extracted before salting. This was previously done by hand, as a kind of massage, and is currently done in special machines. Afterward, they can remain in the salting rooms for up to 15 days. For the Serrano, the salt used is fine. These spaces must comply with quality measures such as very high humidity or very low temperature. Here, superficial salting will take place which will settle in the following post-salting phase, also in rooms suitable for this, so that the salt enters deeper layers and microbial growth can be controlled. This step lasts about 40 days. Then comes drying. This process dehydrates the pieces even more and gradually and distributes the salt evenly. The temperature cannot exceed 34 degrees, and aspects such as ventilation are controlled. This phase lasts up to 9 months. Finally, the aging process in cellars takes place. In the case of Serrano, this lasts between 200 days and a year, approximately. During this time, it will acquire its definitive flavour, texture, and aroma characteristics.

The stages of making Iberian ham are profiling, salting, washing and post-washing, drying and ageing. Profiling begins after the pig’s legs are separated from the rest of the body. It consists of removing excess fat and skin with a knife. It is not just an aesthetic process, although it may seem so, it also helps protect the piece from external agents. The most common profiling is in the form of a V (the so-called Serrano cut). After this comes the salting, which is done in a similar way to that of Serrano ham. The difference lies in the type of salt, which in Iberian ham is coarse salt, sometimes sea salt, and the time they should remain there is calculated according to the number of days by weight. Generally, it is one kilo per day. After that time, the surface salt is removed with warm water, this is the washing process. And in the subsequent post-salting, the pieces are left to rest again so that the salt penetrates the interior, this can last between 40 and 60 days. Drying takes place naturally in ventilated and lighted drying rooms. This phase lasts between 3 and 9 months. In the last step, maturation, the pieces are taken to cellars and the temperature is controlled again, which must be low and the humidity high. Maturity usually lasts at least 2 years. Some companies can extend it to 4 years.

Denominations of origin, a question of geography

Serrano ham has a designation of origin: the DOP Teruel. This white pig is a native breed of Teruel. It has a mild flavour and is cured for around 18 months. The Iberian pig enjoys 4 of these quality standards: DOP Guijuelo, DOP Los Pedroches, DOP Dehesa de Extremadura and DOP Jabugo. The Guijuelo variety comes from Salamanca and is cured at an altitude of 1000 metres. Los Pedroches is from Córdoba and is the youngest of the 4. Dehesa de Extremadura is a designation of origin exclusively from that region, as its name indicates, and they are pure or crossed with Duroc at 25%. Jabugo is the most famous of all, it comes from Huelva and is very characteristic in terms of flavour and texture.

Color of the flesh and hooves, all red and black

The colour of the meat of both types of ham is another of the differences between Serrano and Iberian ham that will allow us to distinguish them clearly once they have been cut. Serrano ham has a reddish colour, but is nuanced and not very shiny. Its fat is also pale. Iberian ham, on the other hand, has an intense red that does shine. The higher the percentage of Iberian ham (that is, if it is not cross-bred or the cross with white pig is a low percentage) the more intense the colour of that ham will be. It also has fat infiltrated into the muscle, which is golden in colour.

The Iberian pig is also distinguished by its hooves, which are usually very dark in colour. The hooves of the white pig are of a light colour, like the rest of the animal. This is the reason why Iberian ham is popularly called “black-footed ham”. The truth is that only the hoof of the Iberian pig has that black colour, not the foot. But it is certainly another characteristic that will help us to know if the ham is Iberian.

Etiqueta commercial, black, red, green or white seal?

The labelling of Serrano ham must include the name of the product, the word “ham” must be used, for example, to distinguish it from a shoulder. It also includes the ingredients (salt content, preservatives, antioxidants, etc.), the best-before date, the company name, health registration, designation of origin or country of origin, nutritional information and batch number. Iberian ham must also include the type: cebo, cebo de campo or bellota. ASICI (Interprofessional Association of Iberian Pork) guarantees the quality and correct labelling of Iberian hams. Its inspectors ensure that the law is complied with in the labelling of Iberian hams. These hams have four types of seals in four different colours: black (100% acorn-fed), red (75% or 50% Iberian acorn-fed), green (100%, 75% or 50% Iberian field-fed), and white (100%, 75% or 50% Iberian field-fed).

Flavor, always in tune with the infiltrated fat

Ham, by definition, has a salty and powerful taste. Some consider it to have an umami flavour (the fifth flavour). Umami is defined by an intensity that hits us at the first bite, offering a strong, yet pleasant and addictive intensity. Both hams, Serrano and Iberian, enjoy this powerful flavor, although with marked differences. Iberian ham has a wider organoleptic range than Serrano. Serrano is saltier, has coarser fat, and a less subtle texture than Iberian. The latter has a certain sweet touch and a more marbled and infiltrated fat that is softer, which melts more easily in the mouth.

Price, and quality are paid for

Iberian ham is more expensive than any other Serrano ham. Its quality, which, as we have seen, is mainly defined by the breeding and feeding of the animal, makes Iberian ham a more exclusive product. The pigs from which Serrano ham is obtained have a shorter life and are much more productive. This makes its price economical, between 12 and 25 euros per kilo. Iberian ham is around 40 or 50 euros per kilo, even more in many cases.

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