The adoption of new technologies and health requirements has led to improved ham quality, but the experience and know-how of ham experts, in a tradition passed down over the centuries from father to son, continues to be essential.
Preparation of hams is a 4-stage process:
- Salting and washing
- Resting period
- Drying and maturation
- Cellar phase (bodega)
Salting and washing. After pigs are slaughtered, hams are covered with sea salt for a week or ten days, depending on weight. Temperature of the room needs to be between 1º and 5º C, and relative humidity is usually kept around 80 or 90%. After this period the hams are washed in lukewarm water to remove salt crystals from the surface.
Resting period. Once washed, the hams are kept for 30 to 60 days in rooms at a temperature between 3º and 6º C and a relative humidity of 80 or 90%. During this period the salt penetrates the pieces uniformly, enhancing dehydration and conservation. This process gives hams a significantly denser consistency.
Drying and maturation. During this period hams are moved to a “secadero”, or natural drying area, where temperature and humidity are controlled, essentially with ventilation mechanisms. Temperature ranges from 15º to 30º C for the 6 to 9 month drying period, during which hams continue to lose moisture, and “sweating” – dissemination of fat throughout the muscle fibres, which then retain the aroma they have acquired – also occurs. The final flavour and aromas begin to develop during this stage, due to a series of changes that occur in the protein and fat of these hams.
Bodega phase. Hams are hung in cellars, or bodegas, for at least 6 and up to a maximum of 30 months. Temperature may range between 10º and 20º C, and relative humidity, between 60 and 80%. During this phase, hams continue to undergo the biochemical processes initiated during the curing process, enhanced by microbial flora which give them their particular aroma and final flavour.