How to Tell the Difference Between Prosciutto and Serrano Ham

We love both of these salty, buttery hams for charcuterie, salads, pizzas, and snacking.

There may be no finer way to celebrate meat than charcuterie. These cured proteins have gone from being a simple means of preserving meats for long storage to becoming an elevated art, with some of the finest examples going for upwards of $500 per pound. The two most famous of these are prosciutto and serrano ham. Cut from cured legs of pork that are traditionally kept whole on stands and sliced super thin (often by hand), these well-seasoned hams are richly flavored, have a wonderful velvety texture, and boast a sweet fat that melts on the tongue.

When you are plotting the choices for your next charcuterie spread, how do you pick between prosciutto and serrano? Are they actually interchangeable? While prosciutto is the Italian version and serrano hails from Spain, they are both generally made from the same breed of pig. So, what are the differences?

The Difference Between Prosciutto and Serrano Ham

Matt Taylor-Gross

First off, while the breed is the same, the feed is not. Pigs used for prosciutto hams are usually fed corn feed supplemented with fruit and whey, while those raised for serrano ham have a diet rich in acorns. The different diets account for some of the color differences in the meat; prosciutto tends to be a paler pink while serrano is a deeper, ruddier color. Both hams are salt-cured, but prosciutto is aged in a more humid environment, which keeps the meat supple and the fat sweet. Serrano has a drier aging process, which intensifies both the texture of the meat and its saltiness. 

But the biggest difference is in the aging time. Prosciutto, especially what you are likely to find in your local market, is usually aged from nine to 14 months, and sometimes up to 24 months. Serrano ham is aged longer, from 24 to 48 months, which also contributes to the texture, color and flavor — as well as its higher price tag. 

While prosciutto is the logical choice for Italian dishes and spreads, and serrano for Spanish, they can be used interchangeably. Serrano tends to be saltier, so consider how it will essentially season other ingredients when cooking it with fish like Alex Raij’s Pan-Seared Trout with Serrano Ham and Chile-Garlic Oil. If you want to use it on a salad, balance it with fruit and greens, as Suzanne Goin does with her Serrano Ham and Arugula Salad with Pomegranate Salsa. Or follow José Andrés’ lead and drape it over roast meat, like this Pork Loin Baked in Salt with Serrano Ham

Prosciutto is more supple, so if you want to wrap it around asparagus or breadsticks or drape it across an hors d'oeuvres like these Gougères with Smoked Salmon, Caviar and Prosciutto, it might be a better choice. While both hams are sliced very thin, prosciutto tends to be paper-thin, it will melt into a pizza like the Grilled Pizza with Prosciutto Johanne Killeen and George Germon popularized at their Providence restaurant, Al Forno. It becomes shatteringly crisp when baked, making it ideal as a wonderful textural element as garnishes or on salads like Paul Bartolotta’s Salad of Bitter Greens with Balsamic-Glazed Prosciutto. Serrano works better if you want a ham you can cut into small dice and sauté. Both are wonderful on sandwiches like Daniel Humm’s Tomato, Prosciutto and Gruyère Sandwiches, where they provide intense flavor that can enhance cheeses and vegetables. 

And if you are having a large party, consider skipping the charcuterie spread in favor of a single leg of either prosciutto or serrano for guests to self-serve. A whole leg of serrano is available at Mercado Famous and DOP prosciutto di parma at IGourmet. Set up the leg on a ham stand with a sharp slicing knife, and accouterments and you’ll have a show stopping centerpiece to your buffet.

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