Nowadays most hams are produced commercially in carefully controlled hygienic conditions to ensure production of top quality hams. Smoking is not part of the process and the time taken to cure the hams depends on many factors; like the size, density of meat and the weight. Spanish hams contain less moisture than their French and Italian counterparts and the unique natural curing process gives rise to a distinctive aroma and flavour.
Serrano (De La Sierra) means from the mountains traditionally hams were ripened; the last stage in the curing process, in mountain sheds called Secaderos. The cool, dry mountain air provided perfect conditions for the last of the four stage curing process.
The first stage is to trim and clean the meat ready for the second stage which is salting, the hams are stacked and covered with sea salt for about two weeks to remove moisture and preserve the meat. The hams are then washed and hung to dry for several weeks in mild conditions. The final stage is air drying or ripening; the hams are air dried in cool, dry conditions for as long as three years in some cases. During this phase, the distinctive flavours and aromas are developed.
Spanish hams are not smoked, unlike some European hams, neither is the use of synthetic flavourings or colourings permitted and it is this natural approach to the curing process that gives Spanish hams their unique taste.
Hams lose between 30-50% of their weight during curation and to test the ripeness, a long piece of bone (cala) is inserted into the ham and the maturity is determined by aroma. The highest quality of ham comes from the native Iberian (Pata Negra-Black Foot) hogs, which are descended from wild boar. Jamon Iberico represents only about 5% of ham production (hence the price) white hogs (large whites, Landrace, Duroc strains and crosses) produce most Spanish hams.
Jamon Serrano is recognized as one of the healthiest items in the Mediterranean diet, it is rich in iron, magnesium, zinc, calcium, phosphorous, vitamins B1, B2 and niacin.
100gs of ham provides 24% of the recommended daily intake of niacin and 33% of protein, essential for growth and tissue repair. Spanish ham contains 50% more protein then fresh meat. Finally, 100gms of Spanish ham contains just 200Kcals, so even with a glass or two of red wine it is still good for you!