You’ve probably seen those beautiful ham legs hanging in specialty and gourmet stores around town. Ham has been one of the most prized pork products in the world for centuries, and quality today is better than ever.
And although at plain sight all ham legs look the same, they vary widely! For starters, ham can come from distinct countries. Then there are the quality levels. For Spanish ham, you’ll notice a significant difference between Serrano and Iberic ham, especially on the price tag.
And you’ll find differences even between the same types of ham, specifically, in the kind of leg in front of you. There’s a difference between front and hind legs, and it matters. Learn all about it!
1. The Front and Hind Legs have Different Names
When you talk about the back leg, you’re talking about the authentic ham or Jamon. The front leg is called Paleta. This matters because the front leg is smaller and shorter. The back leg is larger, fattier and meatier. This doesn’t mean one is better than the other, though.
The Jamon and Paleta are not only different in name and size, but they’re also wholly different anatomically speaking. You can’t even slice them in the same way, so expert ham slicers must practice with both.
2. The Jamon and Paleta Are Produced Differently
Although the salting and curing process is roughly the same for front and hind legs, they need not spend so much time hanging in the producer’s cellars. The front legs are smaller and have less meat, so they’re ready sooner.
A regular paleta or front leg is ready to hit the market in about 15 months, although some of the finest, the ones made with pigs fed with acorns, can spend up to 24 months in the cellar.
For Jamon, the periods are longer. 18 months for a standard Serrano and up to 48 months for acorn-fed pigs, also called Iberico de Bellota.
3. Ham From the Front and Hind Legs Don’t Taste the Same
Perhaps the most significant distinction between the Jamon and the Paleta is their flavor. And of course, their price. Flavor-wise, Jamon is often milder and sweeter, as the meat is farther away from the bone. The opposite is true for the Paleta; it’s more intensely flavorful, as the meat gets more flavor from the bone.
As for the price, pound for pound, Jamon is always more expensive than a paleta of the same quality, and it’s because it takes longer to produce!
So, What’s It Going to Be? Front or Hind Leg?
The truth is, both the Jamon and the Paleta are delightful, mainly when produced in Spain by the country’s talented artisan producers. And just like you might enjoy chicken thighs or breast, you might prefer ham made from the pig’s front or back leg. And that’s okay!
If you can, try Jamon and paleta side by side and see which one sings to you. There’s no right or wrong answer here. What’s guaranteed is a fantastic flavor and a great time with your friends and family. All Spanish ham is awesome!