Your Guide to Cured Hams: Understanding the Delicious Differences Between Prosciutto, Speck, Jambon, and Jamón
An expert lays out how these favorite European hams stack up for your charcuterie board.
Thin shavings of European artisanal ham take a charcuterie platter from good to great. Prized for their mouthwatering balance of savory and sweet flavors and delicate texture, some of the most delicious options come from Italy, Spain, and France, including prosciutto di Parma, jamón Iberico, speck, and jambon de Bayonne. What are the difference in how these hams are produced and how do they look and taste?
Joanne Weir, chef, author, and host of Plates & Places, says that all four of these artisanal European hams are made from a mix of pigs, salt, air, and time. "But that's where the commonalities end. What sets them apart is the breed of pig and the salt used. The air, the curing time and method vary from place to place and country to country producing distinctly different hams."
Italian Prosciutto and Speck
The most well-known ham from Italy is prosciutto. Prosciutto just means ham in Italian, but in the rest of the world it's used to describe prosciutto crudo, or uncooked, dry cured ham from the hind leg of the pig. While practically every region of Italy has its own prosciutto, the two most commonly found in the U.S. are prosciutto di Parma and prosciutto San Daniele. According to Weir, "Prosciutto di Parma earned its name and protected status from being raised in central and northern Italy where the pigs are fattened partly on the whey of Parmigiano Reggiano. When cut into thin slices, it's pink in color and moist, with pure white fat around the edges and good marbling. The taste is sweet on the palate with a perfect balance of saltiness. This smooth, delicate ham has a nutty flavor as a result of a diet of chestnuts. Aged for 12 months, it melts on the tongue immediately with a soft, rich, velvety texture." It's aptly named, says Weir, because it is made outside the town of Parma in the foothills of the Apennines.
Prosciutto di San Daniele is easy to differentiate from Prosciutto di Parma, Weir says, as the pig's trotter is left on the leg. "Made in the town of San Daniele del Friuli in northeastern Italy, this savory, refined, and complex ham is deeper pink, almost reddish in color, with pure white fat and good marbling " How does it differ from prosciutto di Parma? According to Weir, "Prosciutto di San Daniele is made in a moister, cooler climate which helps to produce a delicate, velvet-textured ham that melts in your mouth. A little sweeter and more aromatic, this ultra-tender complex-flavored ham is perfectly balanced with a slight touch of fruitiness on the palate. Aged a minimum of 13 months, prosciutto di San Daniele is savory and refined."
Another much-loved style of cured ham is speck Alto Adige. Alto Adige is where the Mediterranean and Central Europe meet, and the process for making speck includes the air-drying technique of the Mediterranean and the light smoking common in Central Europe. According to the Südtiroler Speck Consortium, speck is milder than the intense, rustic northern smoked hams such as black forest ham, but at the same time stronger and spicier than prosciutto crudo. Producers use not only salt to cure the meat, but also their own proprietary blends of pepper, bay leaf, juniper berries, and rosemary before aging it for at least 22 weeks.
French Jambon de Bayonne
Ham in France is jambon, and there are jambons from many regions of the country. The most commonly found French artisanal ham in the U.S. is jambon de Bayonne or Bayonne ham. It is is also the most known dry ham and the ham most consumed by the French. According to the Bayonne Ham Council, it comes exclusively from pigs born and reared in the South West of France that are fed a corn-based diet. It is dry-cured with the spring salt of Salies-de-Béarn, produced between the Atlantic Ocean and the mountains of the Pyrenees. This climate gives it its characteristic softness. In terms of taste, it is a fairly dry ham, with a melting texture, a delicate taste, and little salt.
Weir notes that Bayonne ham is sometimes called French prosciutto. She adds, "It is rich with hints of hazelnut adding an earthiness that lingers on the palate. Some producers rub the ham with Piment d'Espelette, a slightly hot and spicy Basque red pepper powder, which adds a touch of heat to the finished jambon. It has a rich red color, is slightly sweet, and very lightly salted as compared to prosciutto. It is aged for 9 to 12 months and the end product is meltingly moist."
In the U.S., the most commonly available Spanish are jamón Serrano, jamón Iberico, and jamón Iberico de Bellota. Jamón Serrano is a cured country ham made from conventional pork and accounts for 90 percent of Spanish ham production. According to Weir, jamón Serrano is made from the Landrace or Duroc breed of white pig which feeds on cereal grains. She describes it as having "a deep ham flavor, nutty, woody, intense, more gamy, and saltier in flavor than prosciutto and redder in color." What's more, Weir adds that "the hams are trimmed and cleaned, stacked in salt for two weeks which draws away the moisture and preserves the meat so it doesn't spoil. Washed and hung to dry for about six months, it is then moved to a cool dry location for six to 18 months." Mat Schuster, chef and co-owner of Canela, a Spanish restaurant in San Francisco, is a frequent visitor to Spain where he says there are hundreds of different types ham. He uses jamón Serrano in combination with other ingredients, wrapping dates with it, dicing it to use in croquettas, and even frying it into chips to accent dishes, something he would never do with jamón Iberico or jamón Iberico de bellota, which he says are more luxurious ingredients; he serves those primarily with cheese and bread.
Jamón Iberico is named for the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Spain bordering Portugal. The black-skinned Iberian pigs roam free range and feast on a diet of chestnuts, acorns, herbs, roots, and grasses. "Some say jamón Iberico has the flavor of wild mushrooms and truffles, while other say it is rich, fragrant, intensely buttery, sweet and nutty with a barnyard-like gaminess," Weir says. "Unlike prosciutto which is moist, jamón Iberico is shiny and waxy in appearance. This deep, savory, and sapid flavor lingers on the palate along with the distinctive waxy feel that the fat leaves on the roof of your mouth." The finest quality is jamón Iberico de bellota, like that available from La Tienda pictured above. Explains Weir, "Bellota means acorn in Spanish and this jamón is also made from the Iberian pig which roams the oak forests free range and has a diet exclusively of acorns for the last period of life." Bellota has distinct marbling, with an intense and complex ham flavor. These hams are aged for approximately 36 months. Weir says that when they are aged longer, "the meat is more funky and even more complex. It is rich and fatty, and at room temperature, you can almost see the fat soften and almost melt."