Spanish Hams and Paletas
There are several differences between a full rear leg Serrano ham and the front leg shoulder. The larger ham comes from the rear leg and is known as the ‘jamon’, the shoulder is the front leg of the pig and called the ‘paleta’. Comparing the two together you will immediately notice the size difference between these two cured legs. Full Spanish hams can range from around 6.5kg for smaller examples up to very large hams weighing in at 11kg plus. Shoulders on the other hand usually weigh in the region of 5kg – 6kg.
Upon deciding which ham to buy it is worth considering that there is a lot more meat on the rear leg, front shoulders tend to be half the size and they are also much narrower than a full ham. Rear legs are plump and have been cured for longer losing near to 35% of their initial uncured weight during the process. The meat from a full rear leg is also moister; being thicker it tends to be softer in the middle and ever so slightly more aromatic. This is not to say that the humble shoulder is not a good buy, on the contrary, a paleta represents very good value for money, still has plenty of meat and makes the ideal gift or simply to have at home for personal consumption.
Serrano shoulders, in the main, have a slightly more intense flavour. The reason for this, even though they are cured for less time is that the ham is thinner and does not have as much fat as its rear leg cousins. The flesh within also tends to be firmer and slightly darker as a result of the curing process. Besides from this there is very little difference in the flavour making the front shoulder an ideal purchase for anyone wishing to dabble in the world of Spanish ham. Fat content is higher in rear legs and is something to consider depending on your personal preference, ask any Spaniard and they will tell you that the fat on a Spanish ham, either Serrano or Iberico is one of the most important factors affecting flavour, sliced ham in Spain usually has a generous layer of fat on the outside of the slices.
It is worth noting that the shoulder is slightly more challenging to carve, being thinner there is less room for error and with less fat around the outside edge preparing the shoulder for carving needs a little more concentration as to not accidently cut to deep into the meat when removing the outer rind. A shoulder will produce some lovely deep red wafer thin slices which when left to breath at room temperature will begin to sweat resulting in the flavour intensifying. The same applies to rear legs where the fat will almost begin to melt resulting in a delicious creamy texture accompanied by the mild saltiness of the meat.
The amount of servings you can achieve from each leg will of course depend on how thinly the ham is sliced, as a general rule the thinner the better so the slices are almost transparent, one should certainly be able to distinguish the blade of the knife underneath whilst slicing. A shoulder will produce around 50 good sized tapas and a rear leg double that. Both are good for cooking with the flavour of the meat complimenting chicken dishes very well and also delivering a nice twist to starters such as lightly fried ham and poached egg, tostada, salads and whole range of other dishes (see tapas recipes).
Rear leg hams do offer more choice with regards to grades and flavour, as a larger leg the ‘jamon’ can be cured from 12 months or even 2 years, shoulders given their size are generally cured for around 9 months and rarely more than that otherwise the meat will become too firm. Grades depend on each individual Spanish curing house but as a general rule (applicable to serrano hams) a ‘curado’ or ‘bodega’ grade will indicate 12 – 14 months curing, ‘reserva’ 14 – 18 months and ‘gran reserva’ 18+ months.
Consider what the ham will be used for, both are suitable for keeping in the home for personal consumption and will last up to 6 weeks in a cool environment away from humidity. Rear legs have more outer fat, are slightly easier to carve and offer the option of different grades/strength of flavour. For parties and events a larger ham will be more suitable and produce more meat, larger hams are moister but both deliver good flavour. Shoulders are very popular in Spain and often preferred by Spaniards, they also cost significantly less than a full ham.
- Manchego Cheese - Probably one of the most famous combinations, Serrano ham and Manchego is often served up as a tapas duo in many Spanish bars and restaurants. The strength of the cheese does not overpower but enhances the sweetness of the ham, always good served with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
- Almonds – Almonds are another good pairing and again very popular in Spain. Usually served in tapas bars either in two separate tapas dishes or as a round presentation of ham with almonds in the center the wafer thin ham slices are wrapped around each nut before being enjoyed with a short beer.
- Vine Tomatoes – Tomatoes on the vine (especially cherry vine tomatoes) are sweet and compliment both Serrano and Iberico ham slices. For a fusion of real Spanish flavour try a drizzle of extra virgin finished with cracked black pepper over the tomatoes before serving with short ham slices which can be placed over the top of the fruit.
- Olives – As a tapa on their own olives are one Spain’s most famous finger foods, paired with Serrano or Iberico ham of all grades olives bring out the nutty tones of Iberian slices and the sweetness of a good Serrano. They say there is an olive for everyone, our recommendation is either the Queen or split Alorena olives for the perfect Spanish tapa.
- Broad Beans – “Habas con jamon” is a famous starter in Andalucia, the beans can either be boiled first or simply eaten raw straight from the shells. Usually served with slices of Serrano ham on top of bread with a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil broad beans are one of those vegetables that really bring out the hams flavour.
- Fruit - Serrano ham and melon is probably the most famous, turning the tables in the flavour department where the mild saltiness of the ham compliment the melon (cantaloupe is best) There are however other fruits which match equally well – try peach, nectarine, orange and the other firm Spanish favourite figs, either raw or baked
- Asparagus – Roasted asparagus wrapped in Serrano ham is a pure delight! Boil the asparagus spears for 2 minutes, slice some Serrano ham and wrap around a bunch of 5 spears, tie with string then bake in the oven for 10 minutes. Probably one of the best matches for a good Serrano ham.
- Chicken – We all know that chicken and bacon go well together so why not put a Spanish twist to your next chicken recipe. Try stuffing chicken breast or boned chicken legs with strips or diced Serrano ham for the famous “Pollo Granadinos”, add some herbs and bake or create a rustic casserole. Delicious!
Serrano ham or paleta slices can be lightly fried and makes a fantastic ingredient in summer recipes such as wilted spinach salads, or perfect fried and diced over baked aubergines. Ham also goes well in scrambled eggs, can be baked in stuffed mushrooms topped with cheese and as a topping on Spain’s most famous breakfast the “tostada”. The land and sea combination works very well indeed especially when pairing Spanish ham with monkfish (try kebabs) or with king prawns. Thinly sliced Serrano ham can also be used to wrap fish fillets before baking, hake and mackerel being popular in Andalucia. Fino sherry – serve chilled with a plate of sliced ham, a true Andalucian combination and not forgetting a good red wine, ham, cheese, grapes and crackers.