Taste Test: American vs Old World Dry-Cured Hams
Dry-cured ham is one of those checkmate foods for me. Whether laid out on a butcher's board, draped casually over crudités or fruit, or perhaps fanned out over a pizza, once I see the words "prosciutto" or "jamón" on a menu, it's all over. I'm a sucker for dry-cured ham in nearly every iteration, but not all dry-cured hams are created equal.
Dry curing has been around for centuries as a way to preserve raw meat. As its name implies, dry-cured hams are coated in a salt rub (and sometimes other seasonings) and left to age for several months up to two years (or more) in a cool, dry place. Salt interacts with muscle proteins, causing them to firm up while still maintaining a base level of moisture. Meanwhile, cool air draws liquid away from the ham, concentrating its flavor. Over time, enzymatic and bacterial reactions take place within the meat, creating complex layers of flavor sans traditional cooking methods. Done right, a thinly sliced dry-cured ham eaten "raw" should be slightly moist and deeply porky, with an appealing ruby-to-rosy reddish hue. (Done wrong, cured ham can wind up so dry and salty that it makes Red's prison cooking on Orange is the New Black look downright gourmet.)
Of course, ham producers claim that breed, feed, and lifestyle of the pig play a big part in flavor, too, which is why some elite hams, like the Spanish Jamón ibérico de Bellotta, boast of their livestock's pure bloodlines (black Iberico pigs only) and diets (all acorns, all the time), and sell for hundreds of dollars per pound. With a new wave of domestic cured ham producers making waves, we thought it was time to see how the homegrown stuff stacks up.
Three nationally-available domestic brands, plus two imports:
- La Quercia Prosciutto Americano, Iowa ($7-9 per presliced 3 ounce pack)
- Edward's Surryano, Virginia ($8-11 per presliced 4 ounce pack)
- Prosciutto Creminelli, Utah ($39 for 2 presliced 13 ounce packs*)
- Jamón Serrano, Spain ($25/lb)
- Prosciutto di Parma, Italy ($24/lb)
*Individual presliced packs of Creminelli are only sold retail at Salt Lake City-area farmers markets; when purchased online, they come in packs of two.
With so many immeasurable qualities to dry-cured ham (depth of flavor, texture, mouthfeel, color, and more), this taste test was less about hard numbers and more about overall impressions. Though we ranked each one in terms of "sweetness" and "saltiness," tasters' comments were more valuable overall. In reality, any one of these hams are a treat, so if you can't get your hands on the ultimate winner, you probably won't be too disappointed with the runners-up.
Despite some serious hype for the American brands, our tasters preferred the the classic, old-school Prosciutto di Parma, praising its buttery, mild flavor over some of the saltier, funkier stuff from brands closer to home.
Full disclosure: We tried fresh, thinly sliced (by machine, not hand) Prosciutto di Parma and Jamón Serrano, whereas all of the domestic offerings were presliced and pre-packaged, which is their most common form at most retailers. If you have access to freshly-sliced stuff, whether it's domestic or imported, by all means, get it, as it will likely be superior to the packaged version. But if you need to send away for your ham fix, use this as a guide.
PROSCIUTTO DI PARMA
Parma was the star, with tasters describing it as some combination of "nutty, mild, complex, rich, sweet, buttery" and "gorgeous sweet salty ham goodness: A++." Made only in Parma, Italy, under a strict set of geography-specific regulations and aged 1-2 years, this is the ham to beat. True Prosciutto di Parma is DOP-certified (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or Protected Designation of Origin), a government-overseen quality assurance label. There's a reason they call this stuff "the king of hams."
LA QUERCIA PROSCIUTTO AMERICANO
One of the first domestic prosciuttos to make a name for itself, Iowa-based La Querica won praise for its "subtle, deeper fruit and wood flavors," but many tasters were put off by its toughness and the thickness of the slices. "Doesn't have that melt-in-your-mouth delicacy; kinda boring. Definitely more of a sandwich prosciutto than a charcuterie plate prosciutto," said some. La Quercia sells six kinds of prosciutto, based on different pig breeds, diets, and cures (a seventh is forthcoming in December 2014), though the Americano was their first release and remains the best seller. Cured with sea salt and aged for just under a year, it's made from mixed-breed Duroc/Berkshire/Lancaster pigs grown by small-scale, sustainable operations Heritage Acres and Niman Ranch.
JAMóN SERRANOAnother freshly sliced ham, hailing from Spain. This time, the freshness didn't come through quite as strongly as it did with the Parma—many called out the ham for its dryness, which may have been the result of an unfortunate end-of-leg slice job. "Tastes plasticky. Nice porky flavor, but the dry/hard texture is distracting," said one. Still, others praised its "balanced flavor with lots of nuance" and deep ruby hue. Although there are several tiers of Spanish dry-cured hams, including the ultra-premium Jamón ibéricos, this 12-month aged Serrano was made from grain-fed white Landrace pigs, and is significantly less expensive than its countrymen (if not exactly cheap).
EDWARDS SURRYANOEdwards is a third-generation Virginia smokehouse that recently started selling Surryano, a portmanteau of their location in Surry, Virginia and the classic Spanish ham described above. It's made from purebred heritage Six-Spotted Berkshire pigs and aged from a minimum of 400 days, then, unlike any of the other hams, smoked (in this case, over hickory, to a deep rust color). Tasters found the smoky flavor aggressive, and the texture tough: "Funkadelic," "slightly oxidized," "downright chewy, with a salty jerky flavor" were some notes, leading one taster to ask, "does this belong with the others?" In truth, it probably doesn't—despite its name, Edwards isn't all that similar to raw-cured hams like Serrano or prosciutto.
CREMINELLI PROSCIUTTOA Utah-based brand, Creminelli has a wide national distribution but ended up being the hardest to find—we eventually ordered presliced packs online. Despite a website detailing the craftsmanship behind each product, this 10-month aged ham was by far the most industrial looking and tasting of the bunch. "Very thick, has something of a Fruit Roll-Up texture," wrote one taster, while others pointed out the "overwhelmingly salty" flavor that somehow "doesn't taste cured—it's more like oversalted deli ham." If you're seeking out artisanal ham products, there are better (and easier-to-find) options elsewhere.
Editor's Note: Since this article was published, we've received several responses from readers unhappy about our choice to rank freshly sliced against presliced hams. Our original intent was to taste all hams in the form that people at home are most likely to buy them. In retrospect, tasting freshly sliced hams against presliced ones is not a fair comparison, nor is proclaiming a winner amongst such varied styles. As such, we have removed the rankings associated with each ham. The tasting notes remain valid, and can be used as a guide to shopping for nationally available dry-cured hams. We maintain the utmost respect for artisan ham producers here in the US and abroad, and this post was intended to celebrate their hard (and delicious) work.