what is the difference between prosciutto, jamon iberico, and jamon serrano?
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Summer is almost here, and few things say “I know how to host a party” better than a properly done charcuterie board. But should you get prosciutto or jamón? And are jamón serrano and jamón ibérico the same? The truth is you can’t go wrong with any of these; they’re all delicious choices. But even if they look pretty similar at first glance, your wallet will be grateful if you learn how to spot the differences. So, what is the difference between prosciutto, jamón serrano, and jamón ibérico?

Prosciutto, a Fancy Ham

Prosciutto is a traditional dry-cured Italian ham that’s made from the hind legs of pigs. To make it, producers take the raw meat and cover it with salt for over three weeks to cure it. The salt is then washed off the hams and these are hung in a dark, cool room until they are completely dry. For the final stage of curation, the hams are hung again at room temperature to age and mature anywhere between three to 18 months. Italians call the resulting prosciutto the “dolce” ham because of its sweet taste. And then there are plenty of Americans who call it “fancy ham,” according to Jason Stemm, the vice president of the communications company representing the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma.

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But it’s not always that straightforward. You might have also seen duck prosciutto, or lamb prosciutto. Does that mean these products all go through the same process, you might ask? Ah, my friend, you’ve hit upon one of the most interesting quandaries of the food industry: Regulation. And regulation can be interesting, I promise.

Lawfully Prosciutto

Certain prosciutto products, like Prosciutto di Parma, have a protected designation of origin (PDO) mark which means they must come from a specific geographical region and adhere to certain quality and production standards. In the case of Prosciutto di Parma, for example, production is traced “from the piglet to the end product,” says Stemm. “The pigs have to be Italian-born,” their diet must include “whey from Parmigiano Reggiano cheese production,” and “curing times tend to be longer” than for their other prosciutto counterparts says Stemm. The result is a superior end product from an animal that has also eaten like a king.

But outside of these PDO-marked products, there are very few rules around the word “prosciutto.” It’s the wild wild west out there in the deli meats section! The downsides of prosciutto as a catch-all name are obvious: you risk getting a less-than-perfect slice of ham. But there are also some delicious upsides when producers outside of Italy are able to get involved. Nowadays, some of the most praised prosciutto products come from places like Iowa, where companies like LaQuercia have amassed tons of awards and fans. So to keep it safe, stick to PDO-marked Italian products or to renowned brands you can trust when getting your dose of Italian meats.

Jamón Serrano and Jamón Ibérico

The names jamón serrano and jamón ibérico are sometimes used interchangeably in the US. But actually, jamón serrano and prosciutto have more in common than they do with ibérico. Serrano is sometimes saltier and can have a bit of a deeper red color than prosciutto, but aside from that (and despite what proud Spaniards will tell you), its curation, market price, and end product are all pretty similar to prosciutto.

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So, what’s all the fuss with ibérico? Well, if you ask Miriam López Ortega, the founder of Jamón Lovers, the only independent marketing company solely dedicated to jamón products, she’d tell you a good slice of ibérico “will take you to food heaven.” And she’s not far from the truth: The curation of ibérico ham is pretty similar to that of prosciutto or serrano, sometimes with longer curation times. But ibérico is unique because it must be made from ibérico pigs, a dark-colored breed that’s native to Spain.

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Full-breed ibérico pigs that are raised in their native Spanish pastures on an acorn-heavy diet yield the highest quality hams. These are also called pata negra (black leg) or ibérico de bellota (acorn ibérico) as a reference to their dark hooves and their diet. And they have a surprisingly high level of oleic acid, a “good fat” similar to virgin olive oil that has beneficial effects on your cholesterol blood levels. It’s not for nothing that ibérico pigs are called “the olive trees with legs,” says López Ortega.

Same Same but Very Different

The taste of a good slice of ibérico should be enough for you to tell the difference. It’s richer and more fragrant than serrano or prosciutto. But if you’re still unsure, the price tag will resolve any doubts: A leg of ibérico ham sold for $4.6K in 2016 breaking the Guinness World Record for the most expensive leg of ham commercially available. Your specialty store will have some more economical choices, but it will still be the priciest choice out of the three types of ham.

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You want to make sure you get the real deal? The European Union has created a traditional specialties guarantee (TSG or EGT) protection around serrano that ensures these types of hams follow certain regulations. You should be able to spot a TSG mark on the packaging. For ibérico it’s a bit more complicated because there are no regulations around the word “ibérico.” In recent years, American producers have imported Spanish ibérico pigs to farms in Georgia and Texas in an attempt to try and produce American jamón ibérico. But unless you’re feeling adventurous, López Ortega recommends sticking to one of the four types of ibérico ham that have a protected designation of origin (PDO) mark: Jabugo, Los Pedroches, Jamón de Guijuelo, or Dehesa de Extremadura. All these come from Spain and must follow strict quality standards.

What’s on Your Ham Menu?

Long story short, any (or all) of these three types of ham belong on your charcuterie board. But if you have to choose whether you should get prosciutto or jamón it helps to consider what kind of food affair is ahead of you. If you’re cooking Italian food, prosciutto will be the better choice—it even makes for an excellent pizza topping—whereas a night of tapas calls for jamón.

López Ortega says both types of jamón are great for tapas, but if you’re cooking or making a sandwich, you’ll want to use serrano, and save ibérico for a special occasion. “I love both types of jamón,” she says, “but you can’t always drive a Ferrari.”

Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Charcuterie

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