There are some myths around the world of ham. For example, there are those who believe that the left leg is preferable to the right, but this is a completely unfounded statement. Another frequent confusion is that the ham has a higher quality than the shoulder (called paleta or paletilla). We will now show you why this is also not true.

Although they are not exactly the same, there is no reason to claim that one is better than the other. That is why we are going to get to know the differences between the two well. We will talk about the origin, curing, cutting, and what we should take into account to decide.

The Origin of Each Piece

Shoulder and ham are derived from the pig's legs. The shoulder is the front of the animal, while the ham is the back. As with so many other mammals, the hind legs of the pig are considerably larger than the front ones, hence the ham is notably larger than the shoulder.

When we talk about ham, the weight of the pieces is usually between 7 and 8 kilos, and the shoulders are between 4 and 5 kilos, figures that usually go down a little when we talk about a 100% Iberian product.

In terms of size, we talk about 80 centimetres long for the ham, with a more rounded and curved shape, and about 60 centimetres for the shoulder, which has a more stylised and fine appearance. 

The Importance of the Curing Process

Curing is the traditional process through which the artisans convert the pig's legs into hams or shoulders, imbuing these with their characteristic flavour. It is a slow and delicate task that has been practiced for centuries and that has not yet been replaced by new technologies.

It involves four phases:

  • Curing: Legs are covered with salt.
  • Washing: Excess salt is removed with hot water.
  • Drying: Hams and shoulders are hung in suitable conditions for their preparation.
  • Ageing: They are left to rest in the cellar. This is the final and longest phase, during which the unmistakable taste of the specific piece is acquired.

This process is the same for both hams and shoulders. The only difference between ham and shoulder, due to the dimensions of each, are the times. All curing lasts at least 24 months, in the case of hams, while the paletas, having less meat and weight, can be ready in 18 months.

What Is Aprovechamiento (Utilisation)?

The proportion of meat and edible fat of a ham or shoulder in relation to the total weight of the piece is known as aprovechamiento (translated as utilisation). Although many parts of the ham that we do not eat, such as the bone, can be used in cooking (the most widespread use would be in the preparation of broths for stews and soups).

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The use varies, of course, with its size, but also with the quality. A ham from a white pig will give us a slightly higher amount of meat than an acorn-fed Iberian ham.

A ham offers us an average yield of 45%; that is, about 3.3 kilos of meat, while the shoulder is slightly less at 40%, which translates into just under 2 kilos of meat.

Another important factor for aprovechamiento is the expertise and know-how of the person who cuts the product, so we will go on to learn the details of the cut for the ham and shoulder.

How to Cut the Ham or Shoulder 

Once we have acquired the product and placed it in the ham holder, we are at the most exciting moment for proper enjoyment:Once we have acquired the product and placed it in the ham holder, we are at the most exciting moment for proper enjoyment: Opening the ham (or shoulder) and cutting it.

Each piece has its peculiarities, although both processes are similar and require the same materials: A suitable support, two quality knives, and a sharpener.

Here, you can watch this video to learn how to cut a ham with clear and simple instructions: 

And this is for the shoulder:

As you can see, it is a matter of concentration and knowing the pieces and the process well. 

Which Piece Is Best for Me?

We already know the main differences between a ham and a shoulder, so now it is time to decide which one to buy and why one is more convenient than the other.

Normally, ham has been considered a superior piece, but this is not correct: Shoulder usually offers a more intense flavour, because it has more fat, bone, and a faster curing process, while the ham is more subtle. So, to some extent, it depends on the taste we are going to enjoy more.

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The number of people who will enjoy the ham or shoulder must also be taken into account. A ham of 6 or 7 kilos is recommended for a house where four or five people live, or for family gatherings, since they will be able to consume the piece before it loses its flavour or properties. However, for a home of two or three people, a shoulder would be more suitable.

Another reason would be economic. Due to its smaller size, yield, and shorter processing times, shoulder is more economical than ham. Therefore, when we are dealing with a ham and a shoulder of similar characteristics and quality, the latter will always be a more affordable option.

If you want to know more, we recommend this article that we made for Iberic Box to learn how to choose the perfect ham ( Now, it's your turn to discover a universe of nuances that will make you fall in love and delight your palate.