The question of what serrano ham is best comes up regularly, so we thought we’d explain.
There are 3 different types of serrano: Bodega, Reserva and Gran Reserva, these denomination having a large effect on a serrano ham’s price. The denominations are a reference to question the length of the curing process and as a consequence the quality of the leg chosen.
Bodega hams are cured for anywhere between 10 and 12 months - see here Hamazing’s Bodega leg.
Reserva hams are cured for anywhere between 12 and 15 months - see here for Hamazing’s Serón Reserva leg.
Gran Reserva hams are cured for a period longer than 15 months - see here for Hamazing’s 23-month Trevélez Organic leg.
So why is a ham more valuable if it’s been cured for longer? Aside from the obvious – the extra costs associated with housing the ham for an extended period of time – there are a few key reasons.
Firstly, when the pig is slaughtered the legs are weighed and separated up in to weight categories. The leg drops as much as 30% of its weight during the curing process as the ham dries and fat drips from the leg. A smaller leg at slaughter, thus, is less muscular meaning less meat therefore less curing time. For this reason shoulder hams are less valuable.
Secondly, and following on from the first point, a leg that has been cured for longer will be drier and will have had time to mature. As for with wines, liquors, cheeses, or anything of aged ilk, jamón also matures with age. The maturing process is important for a number of reasons: i) instead of paying for water (like those saline-injected chicken breasts from the supermarket) you’re paying for meat, ii) the meat’s flavour and texture has a chance to develop, giving you a more intense flavour and that distinctive sweet jamón smell, iii) only legs that won’t get too dry are selected. That means that from slaughter the highest quality legs in terms of weight and fat content are chosen to be Gran Reserva hams.
For the cream of the crop, there are those hams protected by geographical indications such as the Trevélez IGP legs and the Teruel DOP legs. These legs are heavier (the minimum is 8kg) and are cured for up to 24 months, much longer than even the Gran Reserva which is a minimum of 15. This gives them fantastic flavour and the deep red velvety meat that we’ve all come to love. As for the quality of the meat, as the denominations suggest the processes are also carefully monitored, such that the production, processing and preparation in the case of DOP are ALL done in Teruel, Aragón. For the Trevélez legs, the legs are produced in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in southern Analusia.
And that is how you know how to choose the best serrano ham!