Curing Spanish hams is a fairly simple process that takes great artistry to do well. Beyond the raw material of great Ibérico pork, the curing process requires three basic things: time, air and pure sea salt. In the present day, the whole process - from slaughter and cutting to curing in the aging area - takes place in hygienic, modern, high-tech installations that ensure optimal production, consistent quality and suitable environmental conditions at all times. The process of curing hams follows the natural seasons, where traditionally the ham would be salted in winter and continue to cure throughout the year. So the process starts off at very low temperature and high humidity. Gradually the humidity is lowered and temperature is raised as the seasons progress.
Traditional Method of Ham Curing
The first step in curing any type of ham is butchering and cutting, after which comes the part of shaping which involves the removal of parts of fat and muscle on the outer layer and skin. The meat is then covered in sea salt for a week or two and then rinsed thoroughly. Next comes the stage of settling. Settling involves the proper distribution of salt spread throughout the flesh, and drying of the cuts. The process of settling may last for a month or two.
After the settling process, the hams are hung in the drying rooms for up to six months at a temperature not less than 30° F and not more than 55° F. At this stage of curing, proteins and fats in the pork begin to transform, beginning the creation of a ham.
The next stage of ham curing is called the aging process. The process of aging takes place in the aging room where the conditions fluctuate with the seasons, and up to 40% of the weight of the ham melts away. The aging process for an Ibérico de Bellota ham spans between two and four years. Traditionally this process is managed by controlling airflow from the outside, overseen by a maestro de jamón or ham master.
Modern Method of Ham Curing
With the advancement of technology and growing health awareness, producers have come up with a four stage ham curing technique, which is:
- Salting and washing
- Time for rest
- Dry and mature
Salting and Washing:
First off, pigs are slaughtered and cut into hams. The hams are then covered in sea salt for a week or two (the exact time mostly depends on the weight of the ham). The curing room is kept at a temperature of near freezing with the humidity maintained at 80 or 90%. Afterwards, the salt is removed from the skin of the ham using tepid water.
Time for Rest:
After the hams are washed properly, they are kept inside a room of temperature of 5 to 15° F with the humidity at 80 to 90% for one to two months. This long storage time allows the hams to spread the salt evenly throughout.
Dry and Mature:
When the resting time is over, the ham is moved to the Secadero (drying zone) in which the temperature and humidity are maintained by automatic means with the help high quality mechanism of ventilation. During this stage of curing, the ham keeps losing the moisture from within which allows the ham to retain its aroma.
In the last stage of curing, the ham is hung in a bodega (cellars). This stage lasts for around two to four years. The biochemical process continues throughout this stage as well. And at the end of this stage, the ham gets its final aroma and flavor. This stage is carefully managed by a modern computer system for the optimal temperature and humidity.