How Jamon Iberico is Produced
The process of curing ham is long and delicate. Expert ham producers must take care of every detail in order to get a perfect result. Turning raw legs of pork into perfectly refined iberian ham requires a strict tracking of important steps.
This whole process can take over three or four years (plus 2 or 3 years of the life of the pig, plus the time it takes to sell the product). So, as you may imagine, Jamon Iberico producers will not receive any income in 6-8 years. These companies do not want to risk such an investment. For that reason Quality Managers consider that their main task is monitoring the development of every single piece of ham.
The right way of understanding what the curing process is all about is by imagining it works like a very slow cooking process. Instead of taking 5 or 10 minutes, it takes 3 years. The key elements that work in this process are adding salt to the meat and dehydration. This food preservation system has been used for thousands of years and it was taught to the Iberian people by the Roman Empire over 2,000 years ago. It is such an effective method that nowadays it is still one of the most reliable ways of preserving food.
Here you have a list of the different stages in this process:
The first step is to cover the pieces with sea salt. The ham at this point absorbs salt thanks to a process called osmosis. The longer these hams stay covered in sea salt, the saltier they will get. That is the reason why it is important to not to keep hams covered with salt for a very long time.
It usually takes 1 day per kilogram to add salt to the meat (between 6-9 days approximately).
There are different ways of adding salt, but the two most common ones are:
- Piles on the floor. The producer will spread out salt all over the floor. Then a layer of hams will be added and another layer of salt will be added right after that. Layers will be added up to 1.5 – 2 meters high. This is the oldest system, but it requires a lot of experience to get the best results.
- Using containers. These same layers are located in plastic containers instead of placing them directly on the ground. Containers are around 1 – 1.5 meters high and 1 – 1.5 meters wide. This way, pressure applied to the hams will not be as excessive as in the piles. Besides, these containers can be moved from one chamber to another is necessary.
In the middle of this process, hams have to be turned upside down so they receive pressure homogeneously on both sides.
Cleaning and Shaping the Hams
Now it is time to remove the salt from the hams. After being under pressure for a few days, hams lose some their shape. For that reason, many companies have a mould to reshape every single piece.
At this point, hams have absorbed the necessary salt, but it is located mostly on the surface of the meat. During this step, hams will naturally distribute this salt homogeneously inside them while hanging in chambers between 0º – 5º Celsius (32º – 41º Fahrenheit). Humidity must be controlled between 80% and 90%. After 60-90 days, the hams are moved to the drying chamber.
Drying the Hams
In the drying chambers, temperature is higher (15ºC or 59ºF) and it will get higher slowly so the ham loses completely all the water in it.
The drying process takes around 6-9 months. During this period of time, typical aromas and flavours will start to appear inside of the hams. The fat will melt and go through the meat.
Humidity will dicrease up to 65%-75%.
Curing and Maturation of the Hams
Hams will be classified according to their weight and size. Temperature a this point will be established between 15ºC and 25ºC (59ºF – 77ºC). Besides, humidity might be lower than 60%.
The purpose of this step is to refine all the hams. Every single piece will adquire all its organoleptic properties during this stage.
During all these steps, the Ham Quality Master must “listen” to all the needs of the hams. All of them are moved regularly from one chamber to another depending on the temperature and humidity needs. Applying a layer of lard on the parts of the ham that is covered with no fat will become a regular task. This way hams do not get so dry in those areas.