Here’s how to suss out the very best jamón ibérico

The Spanish take their ham very seriously. As well they should: their jamón game is indeed strong. But because not all jamón ibérico — a select cut of Spanish ham — is created equal, Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture created distinct designations — think color-coded tags designating quality — a few years ago so everyone would be on the same page, or more accurately, plate. 80 percent of the product gets exported, so this could prove very useful.

Lesser class pork — typically mixed-breed and fed with grain, not acorns — receives a white, green, or red tag. Top quality, purebred Ibérico pigs fed with acorns are tagged with black labels.

“Prior to the new regulations, ham labeling was a free-for-all,” María Castro Bermúdez-Coronel, director of communications at Cinco Jotas, a jamón ibérico producer from Andalusia told Bloomberg. “Mass-produced pork with no connection to the artisan tradition could feature acorns and bucolic scenes on their labels, even if the pigs were fattened on grain in feedlots.”

Here are five things to look out for when trying to get the best ham you can: breed (was the pig pure or mixed?), diet (did they eat acorn or grain?), lifestyle (long grazing leads to a more complex product), lifestyle (free-range or farmed?) and curing (the longer the better.)

Quality, obviously, affects price — high-end cuts of pork can cost more than $200 per pound. Because indigenous Iberian species yield less meat, mature slower, produce smaller litters and require acorn-rich pastureland, the black label pork is much pricier than that labeled mixed-breed.

So like with any other luxury products, a good rule of thumb is when you want to splurge, make sure you’re plunking down cash for the really good stuff. [Bloomberg]