Sometimes the variety of jamón can be overwhelming, with terms like Ibérico, Serrano, Bellota, cebo, and paleta confusing the issue. Thankfully once you understand a few things about jamón the category becomes much clearer.
The types and qualities of Spanish hams are determined by a few factors: the breed of the pig, how and where it was raised and fed, and how it was cured. Simple factors that make all the difference in the world.
In recent years legislation has sought to clarify how hams can be labeled. Some hams have a Denominación de Origin, which spells out where and how a ham can be cured. There are also industry groups like the Consorcio del Jamón Serrano Español which spells out specific guidelines and polices suppliers ensure that the hams that bear their seal deliver the quality and flavors synonymous with the name.
In their infancy, all pigs are raised on a diet that includes cereal grains and mother's milk. While white pigs usually continue to eat only cereal feeds after weaning, Ibérico pigs are raised on a variety of diets. Diet is the second most important factor influencing the quality of the ham, and is one of the factors evaluated in determining Ibérico ham grades.
There are four ways to describe Ibérico ham. They all refer to the special Ibérico breed only found in Spain, the percent of pure Ibérico genetics in the animal and the quantity of acorns they eat (acorns are translated as “Bellota”)
-Jamón 100% Ibérico de Bellota – for free-range pigs that eat acorns and are 100% Ibérico breed.
-Jamón Ibérico de Bellota - for crossbred free-range Ibérico pigs (crossed with Duroc pigs) that eat acorns and are 100% Ibérico breed. The % of Ibérico breed must be added to the label.
-Jamón Ibérico Cebo de Campo - for free-range Ibérico pigs that eat a mix of fodder and acorns.
- Jamón Ibérico Cebo or simply Jamón Ibérico - for farm raised Ibérico pigs that only eat fodder.
More about Bellota grade Ibérico ham (Jamón Ibérico de Bellota)
Ibérico de Bellota hams are from Ibérico pigs that live outdoors and spend the last three to four months of their lives feasting on rich, sweet acorns that have dropped from the ground from holm and cork trees in the meadows of a region called the dehesa. This period of grazing on the open range is called the montanera, and the pigs add about half their weight during this period.
The coveted hams they produce are unique in the world: beautiful nutty ham slices which glisten when they are served because 60% of their marbled fat contains healthy mono triglycerides (like olive oil) that melt at room temperature. Because of its quality, many connoisseurs have referred to Jamón Ibérico de Bellota as the "Beluga caviar of hams."
Hams from white pigs of the Duroc or Landrace breeds, who were raised on farms and fed cereals and then cured in Spain for 8 months to two years.
Jamón vs Paleta
Jamón refers to the larger back legs of the ham. A paleta is a cured front leg, or shoulder. They are very similar in flavor, though the paleta takes less time to cure due to its smaller size.
Hams from Spain are commonly offered in the following cuts, whether made from Ibérico pigs or others. The Ibérico versions of each of these cuts only became available in the U.S. in 2007.
Bone-in and Boneless Jamón (back leg)
Bone-in and Boneless Paleta (shoulder)
Lomo (cured pork loin)
Chorizo and Salchichón (types of sausage)