Spain produces some of the best ham products in the world and is understandably proud of the Iberian pig which is specially bred to produce the finest ham. When it comes to choosing between Serrano and Iberico ham, it may seem that we are talking about two very similar products, especially at first glance. Despite the fact that ultimately, a leg of pork is the origin of both products, there is actually a big difference between them when it comes to the colour, flavour and texture of the product and of course, this is reflected in the price.
Variations in the breed of pigs used, the curing time and the pig's diet all make a difference and here is a summary of the main characteristics to help you decide. (Of course, the best way to form an opinion is to try both types and see which you prefer).
DIFFERENT PIG BREEDS
One of the main differences between Serrano and Iberico ham is the breed of pig which is used. Serrano uses a more common breed of white pig while Iberico ham is made from a very rare and special breed of black Iberian pig. To put this into context, only 10% of Spanish ham is made from the black Iberian pig and classified as Jamon Iberico.
The pigs' diet has a significant impact on the flavour of the meat. Whilst the white pigs that are used to make Jamon Serrano are usually reared on farms and fed grains and legumes, the black Iberian pigs used to make Iberico ham tend to roam free in woodland meadows called Dehesa. These pigs mainly eat acorns, resulting in the 'bellota' flavour that characterizes the very best Iberico ham.
Higher fat content allows the Iberico ham to be matured almost twice as long as the Serrano ham. While the average Serrano maturing time is 7-16 months, the Iberico ham varies between 14 and 36 months.
Fat is a very important part of a ham delivering its distinctive flavour, texture and aroma. The black Iberian pig which is used to make Iberico ham is genetically predisposed to storing up fat between its muscles, meaning that when the ham is cured, the flavour from the fat is absorbed into the muscles creating a smooth and marbled texture. However, with Serrano ham, the fat is separated from the lean meat and concentrated into distinctive streaks. This separation allows the meat to appear dry parts but overall to be soft, smooth and have a sheen.
The acorn-fed Iberico ham has typically much higher content of unsaturated fat with huge benefits both for health and for flavour. Unsaturated animal fats are structurally similar to olive oil. The fat has much lower melting point making the ham more juicy, digestible and the flavour more intensive and durable.
There are clear colour differences between Serrano and Iberico ham. Meat from Serrano ham tends to be pink in colour, in contrast to Iberico ham where the meat tends to be a darker, ruby red.
The different anatomy of Iberian pigs causes a different shape between Serrano and Iberico ham. Iberico ham is typically longer with an elongated shape and a narrower bone and usually ends on a black hoof. Serrano ham is usually wider and shorter - think guitar shape vs. rifle.
In terms of flavour, a good Iberico ham has a more intense flavour and a succulent texture, due to the quality of intramuscular fat present in the ham. In the case of Iberico de Bellota you can even recognise the delicate flavour of the acorns themselves.
Serrano ham tends to have a saltier flavour and a less succulent texture due to a lower proportion of intramuscular fat. The flavour of Serrano is also less persistent and unlike the Iberico ham, it does not retain in the mouth after swallowing.
In terms of price, good quality Serrano and Iberico hams are premium delicacies which are not usually found in supermarkets. Iberico ham is the more expensive of the two types, with its increased quality and rarity reflected in a higher price tag.
However, the most expensive ham may not be the best choice for you or the occasion you are buying for. Just as with wine, younger, lighter varieties of Jamon can be a perfect introduction as you build-up to the more expensive varieties that have been matured over a much longer period.