Purchasing an Ibérico ham can be a bit daunting. With so many varieties, labels, and brands to choose from, even Spaniards can find the process overwhelming. There are different colored tags, there’s the ham and the shoulder, and phrases like “acorn-fed” or “Ibérico” denoted on some products and not others. And how can you tell if ham is top quality? Do these nuances really make a difference in the taste?
As experts in the cured ham world, we’re here to offer you our tips on how to purchase the best
Ibérico ham. With just a few tools, you’ll have all the right information to get the most delicious
cured pork on the dinner table.
Not All Hams are Equal
Spain has four different types of ratings for Ibérico hams, each with their special tags. These tags, which are differentiated by color (black, red, green, or white), denote various nuances in the breed and how the pigs were raised. This quality-control rating system is highly legislated by the Spanish government in order to protect the consumer and ensure they receive the correct product.
If a pig is 100% Ibérico from the Iberian breed, spends its life grazing and foraging on natural grasses, and enjoys its last days fattening up on loads of acorns during what’s called the “montanera” season, it receives a black tag: the best type of ham that exists. This ham, the acorn-fed 100% Ibérico ham, is also referred to as the “pata negra,” or the “black hoof.”
A red tag also indicates that the pig has been fed an acorn diet, but in this case the breed is only 75% or 50% Ibérico, and mixed with a white Duroc breed. The green tags are not acorn-fed but instead are fattened in the fields, have less access to land for foraging, and usually consume a significant amount of animal feed instead. The white tag identifies the pigs that are fed on grains stationed on a feedlot. The pata negra ham also spends more time aging than the others. A white or green tagged ham
will age around 30 months, while red and black tagged hams age anywhere from 36-48 months.
Breed and Feed
Ibérico pigs are an incredibly unique breed of pig. Their genetic makeup creates magnificent layers of intramuscular fat that no other breed can. And when these pigs are fed naturally in the pastures, the grasses, acorns, and exercise create more protein and iron-rich meat than a pig living a stationary life. The fat infiltrates between the muscles and into the cells of the meat, which is why a slice of acorn-fed 100% Ibérico ham will literally melt in your mouth. The acorn adds another layer of nutty flavor, along with healthy oleic fatty acids which are the same fatty acids found in olives. Bonus: acorn-fed and pasture raised pigs have far less environmental impact. They live in harmony with the land, creating a unique symbiosis between pasture and pig.
So how can you assure you’re purchasing a high quality ham? Other than the black tag, there are significant differences in the appearance of each Ibérico ham.
100% Ibérico hams have slightly slimmer and elongated ankles and hoof areas, as this breed of pig is thinner than the white Duroc. Once you cut into the ham, you’ll also notice a difference in color. A 100% Ibérico acorn-fed ham has a brilliant, deep red color with slightly rusty ochre tones (not dark brown) in the leaner areas. You’ll observe far more intramuscular fat running through the meat and surrounding it. Look for a light colored fat; it’s a good indicator of a greater supply of vitamins and minerals. The fat inside should never be hard or dry— when you press into it, it should have some give (almost melting) and easily bounce back to its position.
Paleta vs. Jamón
You may see other types of cured Ibérico pork referred to as “paleta.” Paleta is simply the pork shoulder, or the front leg of the pig. The “jamón” or the ham, refers to the back or hind legs. The front legs are slightly leaner and smaller, but the quality controls for breed and feed are the same. Experts note that the pork shoulder has more intense flavors and nutty nuances, whereas the ham has more balanced and softer flavors. Of course the most important consideration is that black tag, be it ham or shoulder. If you choose an acorn-fed 100% Ibérico paleta (or pork shoulder) you will definitely not be disappointed.
COVAP Chooses Excellence from the Start
When we first set out to bring one of Spain’s greatest gastronomic treasures to the U.S., we knew we only wanted the best. Which is why we only sell acorn-fed 100% Ibérico hams and pork shoulders. For us at COVAP, there’s no other way to properly showcase a cured ham.
What does that mean for you as a consumer? You don’t have to worry about determining whether or not your ham or pork shoulder is “pata negra” with a black tag, or if it has those special physical characteristics of top-notch cured pork. COVAP hams and pork shoulders guarantee the highest quality pigs out there.