Jamon Serrano and Jamon Iberico – What’s the difference?

Vacuum-packed Jamon Iberico

Photo: Vacuum-Packed Jamon Iberico – the single greatest souvenir a returning Spain-traveler can bestow on their loved ones.

Jamon Serrano:

- Doesn’t generally taste as good as Jamon Iberico.
- Is likely to choke you to death if you don’t cut it up into small pieces before putting it into your bocadillo (bread roll). I don’t want to go into details but beleive me, if you start swallowing half a 10 inch strip while still chewing the rest… scary… Spanish parents always chop Jamon Serrano up small for their kids for this very reason.
- Is usually machine-sliced and is more likely to be found in cheap bocadillos (which are therefore more likely to choke you!)

Jamon Iberico:

- Tastes so much better… alone, with morsels of bread, even with “is-this-nirvana?” jamon, egg and chips.
- Tends to be cut by hand, sliced thinner and in smaller sized pieces, and therefore:
- Is less likely to choke you when:
- Found in more expensive bocadillos.

These are fairly random observations (from someone who recently nearly choked to death on a cheap, train-buffet Jamon Serrano sandwich). But what is the actual physical difference between the two types of ham? I suspect there is an Iberico ham pig and a less refined Serrano ham pig. But within the Iberico pig category there are those with black feet (Pata negra), and others that are only fed on acorns (bellotas) for the last year of their life.

I know that eating pata negra, bellota-fed jamon iberico makes you feel somehow closer to heaven, but if anyone can help clear up the exact differences between Jamon Iberico and Jamon Serrano, I’d be very grateful! Answers/thoughts in the comments please!

45 thoughts on “Jamon Serrano and Jamon Iberico – What’s the difference?

  1. Graeme

    Well the main difference is the breed of pig, but within each category you still get big differences. You can get ham from your standard “industrial” pig, from mixed breed iberico and industrial, and from pure ibericos. The control on this is not very tight and there are supposed to be efforts to strengthen it because the trade in jamon iberico is very lucrative. So now there are efforts to restrict the classification of “real” iberico to those areas that actually have the dehesa where the little piggies can roam and feed on the acorns.

    Just to complicate things a bit more you have cerdos ibericos that never even see a bellota, never mind get to eat one. My partner works in an area related to animal feeds and meets people in the ham business. Yes, they can be acorn fed – in a year when there are sufficient acorns! Some animals are put on an acorn rich diet just for the last few weeks of their life, most of the time they are fed standard animal feed.

    Finally, there are some serranos that are highly rated, that of Teruel for example, so you can’t always assume that quality is just about the difference between serrano and iberico. So in the end it’s a complex mixture of breed, conditions in which they are reared, what they are fed, climate, and probably also the art of the curing process.

  2. españolito

    Ben , I’m not a ham expert neither, but as far as I know, for a ham to be Iberico, it has to be pata-negra, in other words, only Black Iberian pigs produce Jamon Iberico.

    Then, depending on how the Iberian pig was fed,
    you have different categories of Jamon Iberico: only fed on acorns, as you said, which is the best, and fed with “recebo”, which is a mix of acorns and regular feed (fodder?)(I don’t know if this is the word for “pienso” in English,sorry), which is a lower category.

    Jamon Serrano doesn’t come from black iberian pigs, and it is not a delicatessen, it’s a cheapish product for everyday consumption and its taste is not even close to that of the Jamon Iberico.

  3. Edith

    As a rule I hardly eat any pork at all, but I make an exception for these heavenly hams from Spain! Jamón serrano has the added bonus of being organic, i.e. it comes from free-range pigs. Absolutely delicious. *thumbs up*

  4. Ben Post author

    Thanks Graeme and Españolito for the clarifications, and Edith, I agree, it is always worth making an exception for!

  5. Gary

    @ Edith – in the UK its almost always a bacon sandwich that ends a long run of vegetarianism!!

    ¡Long live jamón!

  6. ValenciaSon

    There’s a guy out of Virginia in the US who makes smoked hams and comes from generations of ham makers. He went to Spain and just loved jamon iberico. He tried to bring some back home with him but of course was prevented by Customs in bringing the jamon home. After his outrage he embarked on a mission to reproduce that jamon iberico in his own facility. The latest I heard was that he was getting close but wasn’t ready yet to bring it to market. Where he’s set up is in the Blueridge mountains in Virginia, which has a cooler and drier climate with plenty of acorns and space to raise free range pigs so I am looking forward to jamon iberico being released out of his Virginia facility. If he has the right pigs, the acorns, the free range environment and the exact curing process maybe we’ll have it here without paying a king’s ransom.

    I also heard that in one of the towns in Spain that almost exclusively only makes jamon iberico, all the products are bought by a japanese company so maybe we’ll one day see jamon iberico with the tag “Made in Japan”.

  7. Janelle

    My first year in Spain my boyfriend and I had a New years dinner at his home for friends and of course we had to buy some jamon. So Iwent to the supermarket and chose some, not the cheapest but not the best either. When I brought it to him he said, “Como se te occura comprar jamon en el super?!” This was a serious matter, I was supposed to have bought the expensive, good ham at a deli or someplace reputable.
    The price is an important indication as to the quality of the ham. If you buy a generic ham thats 7 euros a kilo, expect it to form a ball of waxy ham tasting material, impossible to swallow. (As in Ben’s case) Buy the good stuff, which can easily cost 50 to 100 euros a kilo, especially iberico de bellota, (as explained by Graeme) and it practically melts in your mouth. MM!

  8. españolito

    Sinceramente ValenciaSon, y con todo mi respeto, espero que el tipo de Virginia fracase. El Jamon Iberico es, obviamente, de Iberia.

    Ademas, tendrí­a que importar los cerdos negros y las dehesas de Extremadura. Lo primero es ilegal, y lo segundo imposible, asi que, me parece a mi que lo tiene dificil.

    Lo que teneis que hacer los Americanos es ir a un delicatessen Español y gastaros el dinerito en comprar productos Españoles de calidad. Son caros, si, pero es que son muy buenos.

    Hay cosas que no se pueden imitar: el foie, el Jamon Iberico, un buen Armagnac, en fin, que no, que no, que si se produce Jamon Pseudo-Iberico en los USA es que el fin del mundo está próximo..

  9. John Ross

    I won’t repeat what others have said, but I’ll mention that the third important difference after pig breed and feed is the curing time – serranos get no more than a year, ibéricos 24 or 36 months. Like wines, and, in fact, it’s all quite bureaucratic, DOs and Consejos Reguladores and European Union regulations, like wines again. There is a little gen on Wikipedia about this (of course), but for the real in-depth stuff on jamónes ibéricos and serranos, you have to delve into the Spanish Food Ministry’s site: http://www.mapa.es/es/alimentacion/alimentacion.htm is the natural starting point.

  10. Parubin

    The best moment to eat a good ‘jamón’ either if it’s iberico or serrano is just few moments after being cut from the leg, so if you like the real thing you should get the whole of the rear leg of the pig and not ‘jamón’ previously sliced and packed.

    This is quite easy in Spain (to get a whole leg), in fact it is one of the most traditional and better acknowledged gifts in Spain (for instance in Chrismas) but I doubt you’ll find it like that outside of Spain.

    It is quite common to find a whole leg in any kitchen in Spain, in bars or restaurants, or in any celebration (at weddings appetizers are served before the banquet and they include wine, pinchos and jamón being cut on the spot by committed proffesionals on the subject).

    The cutting itself is a form of art in Spain, people that cut jamón (cortadores) are hired specifically for that task, contests are held between the best cortadores and it is so the respect on the issue that they even give conferences and speeches on how to cut.

    Anyway, however the quality of the jamón, it will always taste better if eaten directly from the whole of the leg a few seconds after being cut by the expert hand of a ‘cortador’.

  11. Edith

    Hi Gary,

    I’m not a vegetarian – I just try to avoid pork. Except for jamón serrano, that is. :-) Have you ever tried it with a bit of grated horseradish?

  12. españolito

    Yes Edith, I saw a TV program on TV about the slow food program in USA. There was also a Radio show in a Spanish station about the “slow” movement (not only food, but a general life attitude)in Italy and and in some towns in Spain.

    My point is, Jamon Iberico is Iberico. Don’t imitate, innovate, I just can’t imagine a Virginian-Iberian Ham.

  13. Charles C Stirk Jr

    Spain’s from NPR in the states ….

    Special, Savory Ham Headed for U.S

    Weekend Edition Saturday, February 9, 2008 · This summer, a new European delicacy is scheduled to appear in fine restaurants and delicatessens in the United States.

    At around $100 a pound, Jamon Iberico — or Iberian ham — is one of the world’s priciest meats. The ham comes from acorn-fed, free …..

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18550917

  14. Anne-Marie

    Very interesting comments…
    I’ve had the privilege to taste Iberico ham while vacationing in Spain a year ago and I can tell you I will no longer be fooled by Spanish restaurants, based here in Canada, proposing fake Iberico ham at a ridiculously high price! Shame on them! :(

  15. Gerard Lancaster

    There was a good article on Ibérico classification in El Paí­s a week ago – 10 feb. <> Information about where it can be produced, what type of animal ( pure and crossed), how they are raised – de bellota o montanero – de recebo………

  16. ValenciaSon

    Hey Españolito, its frickin ham not brain surgery or going to the moon. Believe me, there will be competitive jamon from Virginia. They said the same thing about California wine and it has won numerous international awards. Don’t be so provincial.

  17. leftbanker

    When I first discovered jamón ibérico I used to carry a leg around with me all the time on a little cart with wheels—like old folks with their bottled oxygen. Needless to say, I was a popular guy on the metro and at the beach. I soon squandered my family’s fortune and now I have to sleep under a bridge. I still have the ham so if you come by for a visit you’ll have to wait in line like everyone else.

    P.S. For some reason the people here in Valencia aren’t as jamón-crazed as in other areas of the peninsula (I think they sell jamón inside cathedrals and at post offices in Andalucí­a).

  18. Andrew

    “P.S. For some reason the people here in Valencia aren’t as jamón-crazed as in other areas…”

    Might explain ValenciaSon’s frickin outburst.

  19. españolito

    Si,si, ValenciaSon, pero nunca será lo mismo un Jamon Iberico que uno de Virginia.

    No será mecanica cuántica, pero ha tomado siglos aprender el proceso de crianza de los cerdos y de curado de los jamones.

    Llamame provinciano, pero que quieres que te diga, las imitaciones baratas nunca son tan buenas como los originales.

    No es lo mismo buen champagne francés que un cava catalán, aunque hay cavas muy buenos, no es lo mismo el foie que un paté malo, no es lo mismo un Cognac que un Brandy, no es lo mismo el Jamon Iberico que cualquier otro jamon curado, no es lo mismo un buen vino de California que un buen Bordeaux, es asi de simple, por eso el Bordeaux es mucho mas caro, porque lo vale.

    Y ser provinciano no tiene nada de malo, yo lo soy y a mucha honra.

    Los USA tienen muchas cosas buenas, pero el jamon no es una de ellas, y nunca lo será.

  20. Brendan

    Sorry Ben can’t offer any insights other than what’s already been said here. All I can say is that the succulent, desirable Jamon Iberico must be made by angels!

  21. Parker

    For anyone in the U.S. who might be interested, you can purchase jamon iberico online at http://www.tienda.com. You can purchase smaller quanities that are sliced for you or a whole leg. A whole leg of the bellota version will run you around $1400. They also offer a large selection of other Spanish specialty foods.

  22. Ben Post author

    Right, you could buy ten legs for that in the Corte Ingles. Or a flight to Spain and a fortnight of ham eating!

  23. dean hunt

    I hate to spoil the party, but I don’t like either…. then again, I am a fussy sod, so ignore me ;-)

    I can’t get over the price either… perhaps I am in the wrong business ;-)

    Dean

  24. Jon Hundt

    “its frickin ham not brain surgery or going to the moon. Believe me, there will be competitive jamon from Virginia. They said the same thing about California wine and it has won numerous international awards. ”

    but it will never be Iberico, just as California wine will never be Bordeaux or Chianti. These are protected names given to products from a delineated region and produced to a certain high standard using specified materials.

    I’m sure the the Virginia ham will be great when they get the process worked out, but I don’t think it will be called Iberico. And why would a producer of a high-quality product want to put a misleading name on his product?

    California wine producers are rightfully proud of their products and do not try to hide the fact that they are from California.

  25. Parker

    When I was last in Spain, I bought jamon iberico (bellota version) for about $60 a pound at Corte Ingles. The jamon offered by Tienda is around $100 a pound. It’s a significant mark-up, but given transportation costs and the fact that there are very few suppliers here in the U.S., I’m not that surprised at the price. I agree with Ben, though. I also think it’s best to fly to Spain and enjoy it there.

  26. ValenciaSon

    Some Californian wines have and continue to surpass Bordeaux or Chianti. Last I checked, there is no IP restrictions on making references to the Iberian region when describing products. The Pride enjoyed in California could very well be enjoyed in Virginia for jamon.

  27. Edith

    A separate ‘denominación de orí­gen’ for the new Virginia ham wouldn’t be such a bad idea, actually. Its taste will probably be unique to the region due to differences in soil, climate, and the particular kind of acorns the pigs will be fed on. All oak trees (and their acorns) belong to the genus Quercus, but I’m sure there are subtle differences in taste.

  28. Anne-Marie

    Come on guy… (ValenciaSon & españolito) kiss and make up now… lol ;-)
    We must all keep our sense of humour, right?
    Right!
    :)

  29. El Jardinero Zurdo

    Ben, a note regarding your caption: “…the single greatest souvenir a returning Spain-traveler can bestow on their loved ones.”

    If you’re returning to Canada, it may well be the single worst souvenir. That’s because, if you’re trying to bring some nice jamón back for your loved ones here, you’ll discover it’s the customs officials who get to keep it. And although I’m sure many of them are nice people, it’s a little hard to like them (let alone love them) when they confiscate all meat products entering the country, especially those precious vacuum-packed strips of jamón iberico…

  30. Bibiana

    Hello!
    The difference is that “serrano” is obtained from pigs of white layer, servants generally in intensive regime, fed with piensos, which have a high percentage of cereals.
    The “ibéricos” comes from an Iberian pig that has been fed on mixed form: with acorns, grass and with piensos.
    And, It is true: makes you feel somehow closer to heaven, jajaja!!

  31. hellothere

    If you are not sure about the difference between serrano and ibérico, would you mind sending me an ibérico leg, please? :-D (always worth a shot, isn’t it?)

    Seriously now, I read a few weeks ago that they were now letting Spanish ham through the US frontier (I did not read about the Canadian one, though). Don’t quote me on this as I cannot find my source, but it may be something you might want to investigate if you are from or travelling to the US.

  32. NuTSNberries4me

    All this talk about eating freshly sliced meat from a leg of a pig does not make me want to eat the yummy Jamon Iberico but rather become a vegetarian

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