What’s the difference between Serrano Ham and Iberian ham?


Today, we want to show you some of the basic differences between two products that, although they seem similar, have different characteristics. However, we do not want to go into this without first clearing up some basic aspects regarding the names we used in the title: Serrano and Iberian.

To make it really simple, we can narrow down the types of ham we usually find in Spain to just two. However, to be more accurate, instead of using the words Serrano and Iberian (referring to quality standards as we’ll see later on), we should use white skin ham or black skin ham. Why? It’s simple.

Serrano no longer always refers to being bred in the mountains.

Although the term Serrano has been traditionally used to name all hams made from white pigs (from races such as Large White, Landrace, Pietrain or Duroc), because they were generally cured in mountain climates, nowadays it refers to a specific quality standard. In other words. Only hams that meet a certain standard (TSG Serrano Ham to be exact), and that are certified, can use the word Serrano in their name. All other hams should be labelled cured ham. The exception lies in cases of PDO Teruel Ham, PGI Trevélez Ham or the PGI Serón Ham, that are neither Serrano nor Cured but have their own name.

As far as characteristics are concerned, in this post we’ll be referring to the generic features of white pig ham, although among the different rules and types, there are more than considerable differences both in its curing and its salt content or fat composition. These characteristics should be considered in their respective organoleptic qualities.

All that glitters is not (black) gold

Use of the word Iberian deserves a special mention. Sticking closely to the truth (or in this case to reality), this magic word that opens so many doors can be used according to the Iberian Standard, regulated by RD 4/2014, both to describe hams from  100% Iberian race pigs – an endemic race to our mainland, the result of crossing pigs brought over by the Phoenicians with local wild boar – and hams from pigs produced by crossing Iberian mothers and Duroc race fathers (white skin pig). However, the differences with the white pig that we will mention below, refer to what we believe is a true Iberian ham, meaning a ham obtained from 100% Iberian race pigs (with a black seal if they are also fed acorns during their time in the mountains).

Rearing the pig

Except for some honourable exceptions, the white pig is reared in intensive production meaning on farms where the animals are kept in pens. Its diet is based on different feed formulations (some of which are tightly regulated such as PDO Teruel Ham) generally rich in cereals and legumes.

Regarding Iberian pigs, it is important to distinguish between the different seals in the standard. Only black seals (100% Iberian acorn-fed) and red seals (50% or 75% Iberian, acorn-fed) are fed, at least in their final phase, in extensive production, meaning on farms with fewer animals and open country featuring pasture, roots and acorns. Hams with a green (dry-lot feeding) or white seal (fattening feed) are bred on farms in almost all cases, fed very similarly to white skin pigs, although it is true that green-seal pigs must spend at least 60 days in extensive production (at the very least) or in intensive outdoor facilities in both cases with a minimum surface area of 100 m² per animal.

The harsh reality of this situation is that 80% of hams sold as Iberian have never visited a meadow and close to 90% come from crossed-race pigs.

Production process

There is no really substantial difference between making ham from a white pig or an Iberian pig, at least not regarding the basic processes: salting, washing, resting or post-salting, maturing and ageing. However, it is true that, given its greater lipid composition, Iberian Ham requires a longer curing time. If we follow the rules, for a ham to be called Serrano, it only needs a minimum of 7 months’ curing compared to 24 for an Iberian ham. If we look at what’s on the market, we find white hams with up to 24 months’ curing and Iberian with 48 months or more. Nevertheless, the black skin pig has more fat in general, both between and inside the muscles and on the outside, which means that it needs longer production time.

Organoleptic characteristics

As we said before, the Iberian pig (pure race and crossed pigs) has greater intramuscular fat content. Sometimes this can be seen in the form of veins of fat or it can be perceived by its shine, its texture and its juiciness. The veining is not exclusive to Iberian pigs. In fact, the Duroc race provides very well-defined fat infiltration, as can be appreciated in the PDO Teruel Ham, which has chosen this race for its paternal line. So then, Iberian ham has greater shine both on its fatty and lean meat. The fat is also more fluid than in a white pig, where we find more consistent and chewier bacon.

On the other hand, the high myoglobin level (a muscular haemoprotein) in Iberian Ham means that its colour is a more intense red compared to the pinky-red of white ham.

As for flavour and fragrance, in both cases they are stronger and more persistent in Iberian ham. In addition to being pure race, if pigs are fattened in the meadows, this gives a flavour and a fragrance with infinite nuances (nuts, acorns, fresh grass, etc.) that are much rounder than a farm-bred white ham. However, even though white ham is associated with greater sodium content, the quantity of salt will depend on the manufacturer. Saltier or sweeter hams can be found in both Serrano and Iberian ham. The advantage of the latter is that, as it has more fat, it balances the salty flavour in the mouth.

At La estrella del jamón we believe that there is the perfect consumer, time and place for each ham. Lobster and langoustines belong to the same family and neither of them should be underestimated, regardless of personal taste. Consequently, we make different types of ham because we like variety and because we like our customers to be able to choose between a TSG Serrano, a PDO from Teruel or an Iberian ham, all made with the utmost care.

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