As Iberico ham has become one of the most popular dishes in Spain, many Americans have been trying to learn more.
For starters, Iberico ham (also known as jamon Iberico) is one of the most expensive meats available in the current marketplace.
Since Spain is well known for its incredible gastronomy scene, it is easy to see why people outside of the region have become so curious.
Of course, one of the first things that people notice when they take a closer look at Iberico ham is the price tag.
For starters, the Iberian pig shares a crucial similarity with Wagyu cattle, as both cuts boast a similar type of marbling.
This is when the animal’s fat is intertwined with the muscle, as opposed to the fat existing merely as an outer layer.
Without further ado, let’s take a closer look at Iberico ham.
Why Is Iberico Ham So Expensive? (Top 10 Reasons)
1. Lack Of Production
When we think of most types of ham, we would like to think of them as being readily accessible.
That is because the average American is used to being able to walk into any grocery store and select the type that they want.
While this is perfectly acceptable in most instances, Iberico ham is simply not that easy to come across, and this contributes to the increased expense.
This ham is not mass-produced on the same level as the ham that most people are accustomed to purchasing, which has to be taken into account as far as expenses are concerned.
There are only a few districts in Spain that can produce the ham, as well as certain areas in Portugal.
Of course, some are going to wonder why the necessary changes are not being made in order to expedite production.
Thanks to the Protected Designation of Origin system that Europe currently has in place, no such changes are in the offing at the moment.
This designation exists to protect products that are produced, developed, and processed in one specific area of Europe.
Otherwise, products could be produced without the know-how of localized producers.
The ingredients must also be sourced from the region in question.
This means that Iberico ham can only be labeled as such if it comes from the designated region.
To be marketed under the Iberico designation of origin, the ham must be processed from animals that reside in the proper Spanish/Portuguese regions.
These animals must also be raised in the specific territories mentioned above.
If there is a link between the characteristics of the product or the food and its geographical origin, these rules are applied.
This protects the consumer and also keeps food producers from falling victim to knockoff attempts.
2. The Cost Of Raising Iberico Pigs Is High
To successfully raise Iberico pigs, certain specifications must be met.
In order to remain in lockstep with these regulations, a significant initial investment is required.
In other words, this is not a pursuit that the average person can jump into, even if they already reside in the regions designated for Iberico ham production.
These pigs are not slaughtered until they have hit the 15-month mark, and the process of raising them is considered to be very expensive.
The majority of the pigs that are used to make Iberico ham are raised in a free-range environment.
Since this requires farmers to have a sizable amount of real estate at the ready, this only serves to add to the expenses that will be incurred.
There is no way to skirt the regulations on these matters, either.
Each pig is required to have access to its own land, as they cannot be raised close to each other.
Unless the farmer can keep the crowding down, they are going to find themselves in violation of these ordinances.
Two and a half acres of land (also known as a hectare) must be set aside for each pig.
Additionally, a true connoisseur will always tell you that the best Iberico ham is derived from pigs that have been given a steady diet of acorns.
The farmers who are asked to provide this diet are going to spend far more than farmers who are accustomed to utilizing more typical (i.e., less expensive) forms of feed.
Cheaper alternatives are not allowable in these instances.
3. Lengthy Preparation Process
Once the Iberian pig is slaughtered, the process is nowhere near complete.
Yes, the pigs are slaughtered at the age of 15 months, but the preparation process is rather lengthy.
From there, hams and paletas are buried in salt for a period of up to 20 days.
This is how the meat is dried and kept preserved so that it does not have a chance to go bad.
Once the salting has taken place, the process becomes even slower.
From there, the ham is moved into a temperature-controlled room, where it will remain for at least two months.
After that, the ham spends an additional six to nine months in a more airy room.
This is how the unique temperatures and climatic conditions of the Spanish and Portuguese regions where this ham is produced imprint themselves onto the meat.
The meat will take on the aroma of the region, creating a culinary experience that cannot be matched.
Eventually, even the air of the mountains passes to the meat’s loin.
That’s what makes the scents and flavors of Iberico ham so different.
There is no way to emulate this process or take any shortcuts.
That’s one of the many aspects that you are paying for when you spend extra on Iberian ham.
The final stage is the most intensive of all, as the meat is placed in a cellar.
The amount of time that it will spend in the cellar depends on its weight, as heavier cuts will need longer amounts of time to reach peak flavoring.
It is not unheard of for an Iberian ham to remain in the cellar for anywhere from two to four years.
4. Unparalleled Climate Conditions
When it comes to Iberian ham, a comparison is often drawn between these meats and the cheeses and wines that are produced in certain regions of France.
That’s because all of these items are able to maintain pricing dominance.
These foodstuffs are all derived from regions that provide the perfect climatic conditions.
The most expensive breed can only be found in the Iberian Peninsula.
The area is so mountainous, it creates conditions that are essentially impossible to duplicate.
The animals raised in this region are very robust, with no sacrifices being made from a nutritional value standpoint.
They cannot thrive unless they are given the chance to reside within the “dehesa” ecosystem.
In this setting, the pigs are given plenty of grasslands to explore, and they will mainly see oak trees.
Because of their ability to roam so freely, they can take advantage of the natural cuisine that the region has to offer.
The swineherds who are responsible for their care ensure that they are fed for at least two seasons, giving them their uniquely nutty flavor.
5. Surprising Health Benefits
While most associate ham with unhealthier side effects, Iberico ham does not exist within these boundaries.
In fact, there are a surprising number of health benefits to be enjoyed.
Because of the acorn-based diet that the top grades of Iberian pig are provided, these health benefits are passed onto the rest of us once we have the chance to taste the ham.
The fats from these nuts make their way into each cut of meat, and this fat is considered to be very similar to olive oil.
Oleic acid is the predominant fatty acid that is found in olive oil.
Scientists have linked this fat to a wide range of helpful health benefits, including wound healing and the treatment of autoimmune diseases.
In fact, this form of fatty acid can even be utilized to aid patients who are undergoing cancer treatment.
If the Iberian pig is provided with a steady diet of acorns, more than half of its fat content will consist of oleic acid.
This provides a far healthier alternative to the usual ham, which is derived from more harmful pork fats.
As long as the pigs are receiving the proper diet, we will be able to enjoy all of these aforementioned health benefits.
The pigs and their diets will vary depending on which type of Iberico is being produced, so this is important to bear in mind.
The diet of each pig has a major effect on the composition and, of course, the price that we will have to pay.
6. Adherence To The Law
To piggyback on the last point (see what we did there?), the pigs that are given the top-of-the-line distinction must adhere to the proper diet.
Farmers are not expected to exist on the honor system.
This is a determination that is made by law.
“To have the de bellota stamp, a certain percentage of the diet or a certain amount of years in their life has to be de bellota,” Teresa Montano, chef and owner of popular Spanish restaurant, Otoño, says.
The de bellota stamp is only given to pigs with a 100% acorn diet.
Meanwhile, other types of Iberico can be found that do not adhere to these regulations.
Grain-fed (also known as Jamon Iberico de cebo) and a combination of grain and grass-fed (also known as jamon Iberico de cebo de campo) are chief among them.
The determination is made once the pigs reach a weight of 25 kilograms.
From there, their diet and fat content are given a full assessment.
Duroc pigs can also be used to make Iberian ham but other specifications must be followed.
The pigs that will qualify must be 100% Iberian, 75% Iberian, or 50% Iberian, with no exceptions.
This is the most crucial legal distinction for all pigs that are used to make Iberico ham.
7. Expensive Importation
Did you know that the U.S. Department of Agriculture banned the importation of Iberico ham until 15 years ago?
While the ban has since been lifted, there has been a serious effect on the importation process that cannot be ignored, at least from a pricing standpoint.
Some skeptics may believe that they have already tried this ham and that it was underwhelming.
That’s because they are not tasting the very best that these regions have to offer.
Once the importation floodgates were opened, American consumers failed to realize that all Iberico ham is not the same.
It comes in several grades, ranging from good to great.
Companies that only import top-tier Iberico (such as 5J) can require a bit of sophistication to navigate.
You’ll need to learn more about these brands and how to read labels.
The best Iberico ham that is imported from Spain will be under the black label designation.
Even if Americans have access to companies within the United States that can ship the ham to their doorstep, this is still a costly endeavor.
By the time these companies have shouldered the costly importation costs, prices are sure to rise.
US companies must also jump through all of the hoops that have been set by the FDA.
The FDA restricts the movement of foreign meats for many reasons.
For starters, they must make sure that no pests or diseases are being carried into the US.
Otherwise, these potential maladies could have a drastic effect on the US ecosystem.
8. Iberico Ham Is Hand Carved
The amount of effort that goes into the production of Iberian ham is well documented.
Many do not realize the level of craftsmanship that takes place, though.
The best Iberian ham has been carved by hand, by artisans who have dedicated their entire lives to this pursuit.
In other words, you are not always paying for the ham itself.
You are paying for the many years that these artisans have put in to become experts at their craft.
There is no substitute for the experience and effort that they put in.
While the carving of this ham is an amazing spectacle to witness in person, it is not done for show.
Iberico ham must be carved by top-of-the-line artisans, as a means of preserving the truly high-end aspects.
Without these highly skilled carvers, the silky textures, unique scents, and varied flavor profiles would all be lost.
Machine carving takes place in some instances.
This does not severely detract from the flavor, but some of the complexities are lost.
Hand-carved Iberico ham will be a bit more pricey, but it is more than worth it.
9. The World’s Best Tasting Ham
Simply put, Iberico ham is typically considered to be the best that the world has to offer.
It is the finest ham on the planet, and it has a regular presence on lists of the world’s finest foods.
The taste is so divine that buyers are willing to spend top dollar just to obtain a few pounds.
In fact, one leg of this ham (which will range between 13 and 17 pounds) can be sold for as much as $4,500.
Spanish and Portuguese production is also limited to precious few regions, so it cannot be mass-produced.
The distinctive taste owes to the fact that these pigs have veins of fat that run throughout their muscle.
With the large amount of fat that layers each ham, the Iberico ham can be cured for a longer period.
This lengthy curing time is what creates the complex and intense flavor that serves as Iberico ham’s calling card.
Their living conditions are also a key factor, as each Iberico pig is given a sizable amount of space to frolic in.
The happiness of these pigs comes first, making for a more well-rounded existence.
The acorn-rich diet that they are provided with ensures that they are full of natural antioxidants as well.
These extraordinary pigs also have a lineage that can be traced all the way back to the caveman era.
Its DNA composition is vastly different from the majority of pigs that you are going to come across.
The combination of diet and genetics cannot be duplicated elsewhere.
10. Small Litters And Proper Purity
When you take certain factors into account, the price points for Iberico ham make perfect sense.
Because of the amount of space that each pig requires on an individual basis, farmers in the approved regions are not able to expand their litters.
The production process cannot be sped up, either.
This leads to less meat yield per head, and each herd needs time to mature.
Yes, the Iberico pig can be cross-bred with other varieties but there is an inherent quality limitation in these instances.
One hundred percent Iberico ham will always cost more than any cross-bred variety that is currently available.
Until recently, ham could be sold under the Iberico label even if the pigs were only half Iberico.
New legislation has since been passed that has closed this loophole.
Iberico ham must now be sold with the proper percentage of Iberian ancestry clearly labeled.
The top Iberian pigs are raised in envious environments, which also contribute to the high costs.
When these pigs are slaughtered, it is not referred to as such.
Instead, local farmers will refer to the process as a sacrifice.
The pigs need lots of space to run and lots of acorns to eat.
None of this comes cheap.
If the pigs are not given the proper space to run, their muscles are not going to develop properly.
This detracts from the marbling that gives Iberian pigs their unique flavor profile.
Farmers cannot allow nature to handle the management process for them, either.
Carvajal inspectors stop by every two to weeks to monitor their diet and treatment processes.
The pig fat is sampled to test for oleic acid content.
If this content is too low, the pigs will not meet the necessary quality standards.
If it is too high, they cannot be cured into ham.