After the free range grazing, the pig is slaughtered in the traditional way or industrially to reduce stress so that the quality of the meat is not affected. At the time of slaughter the blood is used for making cold meats and preserves.
Next it is washed and then cut into hams and shoulders to start the curing process the next day. Before you obtain the Iberian ham, the leg is prepared and part of the fat, skin and meat from the outside is taken away. All this makes the characteristic “V” on the skin.
Although technological innovations have been incorporated into the process, the elaboration of the Iberian ham follows a delicate and traditional selective process. The climate conditions during the curing process (drying shed and cellar) make the product unique and famous all over the world.
Curing stages of Iberian ham
Salting. The hams are soaked in brine at a low temperature (between 1º-5ºC) with humidity of 80%-90% for 9 to 14 days.
Rinsing. This process gets rid of the salt attached to the outside of the ham. It also eliminates any remaining traces of blood.
Post salting. Depending on the size and weight of the hams, the normal time is between 60 and 75 days and can even be extended to 90. The slow penetration of the salt into the muscles continues. The hams are kept at temperatures between 3º and 6º C with humidity of 80%-90%.
Drying. It is dried by controlled air circulation for three to seven months to achieve the final stabilization of the ham. The humidity slowly disappears with this process. At a higher temperature (15º-30ºC) an even distribution of the fat is acquired and this gives rise to the taste and aroma of the ham.
Drying and curing in cellars. It is the final stage of the process and it consists in hanging in the still air, at temperatures between 10º and 20ºC with room humidity of 60% to 80%. The fungus that appears on the outside of the ham provides the characteristic smell of the Iberian ham. The minimum stay in the cellar depends on weight and varies between 6 and 18 months.
Depending on the weight of the ham, the total process time to get an Iberian ham in perfect condition and ready to eat is from 20 to 24 months.
Parts of the Iberian ham
“Maza”. This is the most succulent part where most of the meat is and where you normally begin to cut and use the ham.
“ Contramaza”. Opposite side to the “maza”. This part has very little fat.
“Babilla”. This is the least juicy part of the Iberian ham between the tibia and the femur. The experts recommend you start to use this part of the ham first if you are going to use it slowly to make sure it does not lose its smell and taste.
“Punta”. Top end of the ham. Tasty with a lot of fat. More salty if it has not been protected by a yellow coat of fat.
Shank. The meat around the trotter is hard, stringy and has a lot of oil. Very good for small pieces of ham for cooking stews.
Utensils for carving
Carving the ham follows precise rites so you get all the flavour. At different fairs and festivals celebrated around ham there are carving competitions with very good prizes. This is why the utensils should be carefully chosen.
Professional ham knife. A ham knife should have a long, narrow blade that is good and sharp to cut thin slices.
Short carving knife. Short and narrow with a strong blade so you can make slits and to cut round bones wh
Fillet knife. Wide, medium width and resistant blade. Used to cut off the skin.
Knife sharpener. It eliminates small nicks and keeps each knife perfectly sharpened.
The ham stand. It makes it easy to turn the ham and carve in a straight line keeping the cut level.
First of all. Before cleaning the ham, you make a deep cut (4 cm.) at the hock by the shank. Afterwards you proceed to cut off the skin and fat.
Where to start. If you are going to eat the ham within 3 days you start to carve the ham at the meatiest part, “la maza”. On the other hand, if you are going to eat the ham at home you should start at the “babilla”.
Preparation. Once you have removed the top part of the ham you go on to take the skin off the sides.
Slicing. You use the ham knife for this. The slices should be very thin and medium sized. You should carve all the parts of the ham to get more out of it. When you get to the bone, you should make a clean cut to separate the meat from the bone keeping the meat level so that the slices come off easily.
Turning the ham over. When the slices get down to the femur it is time to turn it over and place it on the ham stand with the trotter facing down.
Finishing off. You should carve all the meat from all over the ham so that the bones are clean
Conservation. You should keep the ham in a cool dry place covering the parts of the ham that have been carved with slices of the ham’s own fat and then cover it with a cloth.