Serrano Ham Technologist
The most frequently asked question of consumers is how to choose a good Serrano ham.
This is not an easy decision to make if we base it solely on the outer appearance.
The most important and deciding factor would be to sample the product, because this would put all our doubts to rest. There are, however, certain characteristics of the ham's outer appearance that can tell us what we can expect to find on the inside.
1) THE LABEL
First and foremost, the ham must be Serrano. To ensure that this is the case, we must check that the label says "Serrano ham" as a Traditional Speciality Guaranteed, as well as the number of months it has been cured. For hams in the Traditional Speciality Guaranteed category, minimum curing time is 7 months.
If we look at the back side of the piece, we will usually find an ink seal or fire brand showing the week and year that the product entered the curing stage, thus indicating the curing time for the piece.
2) THE PIECE
As I've mentioned already, there are external characteristics of the cured piece that can give us important information:
Let's start at the foot, or the hock. This part of the foot or hock should have plenty of fat and muscle. This will help us to see that there is good muscle and fat mass. We should also check that this area is rounded with no clefts or grooves, which can be an indication of excessive curing and subsequent hardening.
If we continue on the muscular side, we should select a piece that is smooth and uniform, both in texture and color, with no clefts or grooves which might indicate that this side has dried out, implying excessive depletion of lean mass and excessive curing.
If we look at the tip, we should look to see that it is also homogeneous. In other words, there should be no clefts or grooves that would indicate the defects I've already mentioned.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects to observe is the fat layer. We mustn't forget that the fat is what gives the meat its flavor, so a certain amount of fat content is desirable in our ham.
We can see this here, in the widest part, usually called the cushion or round (tapa) in hams, and this fat layer - pork fat - should cover the side area of the cushion and extend to the butt or hip, the extreme end of the ham, where we should visually verify that the fat is at least one and a half centimeters thick.
The color of the fat is also important. It should be yellowish-white in color. In other words, we don't want the fat to be excessively oxidized or rancid, which we can check by looking at the color. A brown or orangeish hue may indicate that the fat is excessively rancid.
To sum up, we can say
that the important elements of a piece that we can assess visually and externally are, first, the Serrano ham designation, proper labeling, curing time on the label and a brand or ink mark on the back side. Secondly, the skin, the fat and the yellowish color, no clefts or grooves on the muscular face. And finally, the piece should be lemon-shaped, which generally indicates that it has been taken good care of throughout the curing process.
There are probably no bad Serrano hams, but let's compare some of the elements we've mentioned already to see what differences there are between a ham we've said has the most desirable qualities, and another that might actually be alright inside, but that we can rule out from the beginning because of its external qualities.
We've said that the hock, the area of the hock and the foot, should be as rounded as possible.
Here we can see grooves in the muscle from excessive drying out and reduction in mass. In an ideal piece we will always observe a more uniform surface.
The fat on a less-desirable ham will be scarce, with possible areas lacking in fat - "bald spots" as it were, in the area of the cushion or round (tapa). This fat in less-desirable hams will also be orangeish in color, possibly indicating excessive rancidity, more than we would find in an ideal ham, which will have a thicker layer of fat that is brighter and yellowish in color.
And finally, a ham with no label or other indications is not recommendable, while a well-labeled ham with the guarantee of the "Serrano ham" designation and an indication of curing time, in addition to other positive attributes, is a desirable ham.
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