Yield of a Pata Negra ham: is there too much fat?

You start cutting into a Pata Negra ham and all you seem to get is fat and more fat. You look at the plate and calculate that there’s already about a kilo there… £50 or £60 destined straight for the bin. It’s not a good start.

Order in which to cut a ham and excess fat

At last, the first streaks of meat appear. Their glossy shine gets your saliva glands working, and when you finally eat the first slices you start seeing things differently.

But is there really too much fat in acorn-reared ham? Has it always been like this?

Why does Pata Negra Ham contain more fat now than it used to?

There are 3 reasons behind the increase in external fat in acorn-reared (bellota) Iberico ham:

  1. Purity of the breed: The current trend is to use the more pure-bred animals for the high-end range. They produce better quality meat and enjoy more substantial official protection (only hams from 100% Iberian pigs can be called Pata Negra). But these pigs are characterized by significant fat stores in the outer part of the muscle, while the intramuscular streaks are much finer than in Duroc pigs.
  2. Longer curing times: The widespread consumption of Iberico ham is a very recent phenomenon – since just 15 or 20 years ago. As José Bello Gutiérrez says in his book Jamón curado: Aspectos científicos y tecnológicos [Cured Ham: Scientific and Technological Aspects], during the last quarter of the 20th century it was more common to eat Serrano ham from white pigs nourished on fodder and bred deliberately to minimize fat. It wasn’t just a question of price. People also thought it was healthier, even if it meant reducing the organoleptic quality of the product. As a consequence, the ham we normally ate during the 20th century was cured for no more than 1 or 2 years and was very lean.
  3. Salt reduction: Consumers (especially in Europe) want products with low salt content. It improves the flavour and is much healthier. But when salt levels are reduced, other elements need to be introduced to protect the ham from organisms that could make it go off. For example, improving sanitary conditions and ensuring cold chain guarantees (crucial during the first months of curing).
    Several studies (for example Gou, 1998) have shown that fat slows down the penetration of salt into the middle of the ham because salt diffuses less well than through fat than lean meat. So, the more fatty tissue the ham has, the longer it will take for the salt to reach the meat. Unfortunately, most of the fat will be inedible because it will have oxidized and turned rancid over the years.
    Finally, the ham’s own sweat helps: the external fat impregnates all the surface pores as it melts, forming a protective film.

    Moreover, as we explained in a previous article, the fat masks the salty flavour, so the more fat there is, the less we can taste the salt.

Other products with a similar yield

Acorn-reared ham yields roughly 40-45% meat. That means that of a £500 ham, around £300 will end up in the bin. That might seem like a lot, but it’s similar to the yield of other common consumer products like sole (40%), mussels (35%) or nuts (45%).

Weight of nuts with and without shells

Do big hams contain a higher proportion of meat?

Yes, they do. That’s why restaurants tend to prefer larger hams of more than 8 or 9 kg.

The reason is that the weight of the bone, the hoof, the skin and the external fat is basically the same for large and small hams. Larger hams are from pigs that put on more weight, but their underlying skeleton is very similar.

But be careful: sometimes that extra weight isn’t because the pig was allowed to eat acorns for longer, but because it was fed on fodder. That means the product is lower quality. In the industry this is known as remate (finishing) and, as you’d expect, it is not permitted by the current law regulating Ibérico ham (formerly it was permitted for hams classified as Recebo, meaning fed on fodder and acorns).

How to choose a ham holder for a Jamon Pata Negra

The other day my friend Isabel told me that at home only her sister cuts the Pata Negra. Not her father or her mother or her grandfather… only her sister was brave enough to face the pig’s leg. They aren’t actually afraid of the knife, but the reproaches they’d receive from other diners: it’s sliced too thick, too thin, don’t forget the gristle, put a little elbow grease into it before we all starve, that’s not where the meat starts, you’re going to cut yourself… Family can be very cruel sometimes, as Julius Caesar found out more than 2000 years ago.

Not wanting to cause a familial breakdown, some choose to take the ham to the butcher for it to be sliced and packed. Not a bad idea, but it’ll start off great and the next thing you know you’re waiting for Santa Claus with a bacon cheeseburger in lieu of ham, polvorones and singing Christmas carols to a bottle of Anís del Mono.

Therefore, we take the bull by the horns and do it ourselves. The first thing to ask is whether we have the right tools. The knife is crucial, but you can buy a decent one anywhere. It must, of course, be sharpened occasionally because if it doesn’t it’ll become as harmless as a lamb.

What’s hardest to find – almost as difficult as finding an honest politician – is adequate support. Some professional ham cutters tune their jamoneras to improve performance and make the work safer and more comfortable. Some attach a rubber base to have a better grip to the table, others make do with a skewer that allows them to adjust the height of the tip (the side opposite to the hoof) and some daring individuals even patent and manufacture their own designs, such as the person from Malaga who devised this upright cross-sectional jamonero.

The experts know very well what they need: they do, after all, cut hundreds of hams every year. Some are even capable of slicing 36 hams in just 40 hours, more than most mere mortals cut in their lifetime. But all the amateurs out there, do you know what to look for when choosing a ham stand? Here are some tips and recommendations:

1. Stability

So the ham doesn’t move while cutting it, you need to make sure the base doesn’t slip off of the surface on which it’s resting. Despite not weight much, just 4 to 6 rubber studs would be more than sufficient to ensure adequate clamping (see photo 1). Good support helps us to avoid sudden movements and potential accidents, and to provide a fine cut.

Rubber studs on the base of the ham holder
Photo 1: Rubber studs on the base of the jamonero support

2. Comfort

There are two basic elements that make cutting more comfortable: the rotating grip and height adjustment.

The rotating grip on the trotter (see photo 2) allows you to change cutting zone very quickly without having to loosen or tighten the screw that secures the leg. Just loosen and adjust the screw that allows rotation of the inner ring, and when it’s in the desired position, retighten it; this is especially useful for professional cutters. These systems also tend to hold the part better and provide greater stability.

Ham rotation with a rotating grip
Photo 2: Rotation of the ham without having to loosen or retighten the attached screw.

These systems are designed primarily for Pata Negra Bellota hams, which are usually 100% Iberian and therefore have a very narrow shank. With that said, 6cm in diameter is enough to pass the hoof and ankle through the hoop. If, on the contrary, you want to cut a serrano ham, you’d better choose another grip system if you don’t want to have surprises.

With height adjustment we can always cut the same way, regardless of the size of the piece or the part of the ham we are working on. It allows us to modify the inclination of the axis of the hoof-tip (see photo 3).

Photo 3: Height-adjustable ham stand
Photo 3: Height-adjustable ham stand

3. Storage and transportation

When the jamonero is intended only for occasional use, the ideal situation would be for it to occupy minimal space. In this sense, some models can fold the arm onto the base (see photo 4). This is also highly recommended for when we need to take it from one place to another.

Foldable jamonero
Photo 4: Foldable jamonero.

4. Durability

Virtually all brackets costing €25-30 can last us a lifetime if we use it to only cut one or two hams a year. However, professionals need a stronger product that doesn’t show any aesthetic signs of deterioration (chips, appearance of rust, marks on wood, etc.).

Wood or steel boards are more resistant. They don’t usually break, even after a fall. Silestone or plastic based boards are more fragile. In contrast, silestone is not easily scratched and looks brand new when it’s been cleaned.
Ham holders for sale at Ibergour (sorted by price):

SubjectionRotating gripFoldableAdjustable heightProfessional use
Buarfe foldable ham standGood subjection
Jamotec Hogar ham standExcellent subjection
Jamotec JP Luxe ham standExcellent subjection
Buarfe rotary and foldable ham standExcellent subjection
Vittatus ham standExcellent subjection
Lodiví ham standGood subjection
Jamotec J2 ham standExcellent subjection
Jamotec J1+ ham standExcellent subjection
Jamotec J4R ham standExcellent subjection
Jamotec J5R ham standStrong subjection
Buarfe Elite Inox ham standExcellent subjection
Buarfe Elite Plus Inox ham standExcellent subjection
Jamotec J4P ham standExcellent subjection
Jamotec F1 ham standExcellent subjection

Other less important considerations

Length of the base: Iberian hams usually measure about 90 cm and any of the above table brackets allow for a proper cut. However, restaurants and shops selling cut hams tend to prefer larger hams, from 9 to 12 kg, because they have a superior performance. Our recommendation in these cases is to opt for a fairly long base, because otherwise you’d have no support for the tip of the ham (the end opposite to the hoof) to be out of the holder.

Furthermore, the shorter the base, the steeper the ham. There are those who prefer it this way but usually it makes it a little more difficult to keep the cutting area flat.

Skewer: Many of the jamoneros have a spike on one end to hold the end of the ham that touches the base (see photo 5). While it’s useful in the shorter and lighter jamoneros it is not so essential in high-end ones as the subjection of the hoof is very good. In fact, many professionals do not like using a skewer because it maims that part of the ham, causing an air inlet that can affect the quality of meat in that area.

Jamonero skewer
Photo 5: Skewer on the jamonero

Cleaning: Plastic, silestone or steel bases are the easiest to clean. Wood always absorbs some fat which poses no hygienic risk, but it affects your appearance. Over time – and after a few hams – spots start appearing.

Price: Given the amount of a good ham, it’s not worth skimping on the jamonero or the knives, because the final result can be very different depending on their quality. Getting a fine cut and reduce the risk of injury is priceless.