Prosciutto is the Italian word for ham. In the United States, the word prosciutto is used to describe an uncooked, dry-cured ham, which is called prosciutto crudo in Italian whereas baked ham is referred to as prosciutto cotto. Prosciutto is a fatty cut of meat that, when sliced thinly, has a sweet meaty flavor with a pleasant edge of saltiness, and a buttery texture that melts in the mouth.
What Is Prosciutto?
Prosciutto is made from the hind leg of a pig. Once the leg is cleaned, it is heavily salted with sea salt by a maestro salatore (salt master) and left for several weeks in a cool, dry environment. The salting process removes leftover moisture, creating an nonconducive environment for bacteria to form. It also creates a distinctive flavor.
The legs are then hung in cool, humid rooms for 60 to 90 days. When the salt curing is over, the leg is washed, the salt brushed from the meat, and the ham is left to dry for 12 to 36 months in large buildings that capture and circulate breezes throughout the drying rooms. It is said that the unique quality of the breezes where this drying process takes place is what gives different Italian prosciutti crudo their unique flavor profiles.
In addition to the salting and air-drying, the amount of time the prosciutto is allowed to age makes a huge difference. A young prosciutto is bright reddish pink, with a soft, moist texture and a sweet flavor. As it ages, it becomes drier and firmer, with an orange veneer, and a more refined, subtle, and complex flavor.
How to Cook Prosciutto
The best way to cook prosciutto is usually not at all. Italian prosciutto crudo is an artisan product—even on a commercial scale—made by a time-honored production process, and is usually best enjoyed as it is, served with complementary foods such as melon, chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or fresh figs. While heating slices of salt-cured ham can cause it to dry out, laying slices of prosciutto over a pizza that has just been removed from the oven enhances the flavor of the ham without losing its silky consistency.
The rind or unsliceable ends of prosciutto can be diced and cooked into soups and stews for added flavor. These ends are usually available for a much lower price at shops that slice prosciutto.
What Does Prosciutto Taste Like?
Great prosciutto offers a perfect balance of sweet and salty, with a rich but refined porcine flavor and, sliced appropriately thin, a diaphanous texture that melts in your mouth, allowing a series of taste sensations to emerge.
Prosciutto di Parma vs. Prosciutto di San Daniele
The European Union created the Protected Designation of Origin category (PDO) to protect the names of regions and their agricultural products. The two most popular varieties of prosciutto protected by the PDO are Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Danielle.
Prosciutto di Parma is made in Parma, Italy, in the region of Emilia-Romagna, the same region well known for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Prosciutto di San Daniele comes from San Daniele, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northeastern Italy.
While these two hams share the same basic production process, there are subtle but significant differences between them. While Parma ham keeps its rounded mandolin-like shape, San Daniele undergoes a pressing after salting which flattens the ham (while also encouraging penetration of the salt), giving it the appearance of a guitar. By tradition, San Daniele retains the hoof of the animal attached to the leg, while it is removed for Parma.
Both Parma and San Daniele must be aged for at least 13 months and as much as three years, and the amount of aging greatly affects the hams by enhancing their fundamental characteristics. It is the particular breezes of the two production areas during the drying period that are said to create the most significant difference between the two.
Parma ham tends to have a sweet, almost fruity taste profile, whereas San Daniele seems a bit more earthy and gamy. Both become firmer, drier, and a little darker the longer they age, with a subtler, more refined, more complex flavor.
Each area of Italy has its own unique kinds of prosciutto crudo, but most of them cannot be imported into the United States. In the 1960s, a ban was imposed on Italian cured meat products due to fear of swine vascular disease, and only a few types of Italian prosciutti crudi could be brought into the U.S., namely Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele. In 2013, the ban was lifted for five regions in Northern Italy—Piedmont, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, and the cities of Trento and Bolzano—so the selection of Italian prosciutti will probably continue to expand.
One of the very best of the newly permitted imports is called Culatello di Zibello, from the flatlands around the towns of Zibello and Parma in Emilia-Romagna. This highly sought-after prosciutto, considered to be the king of Italian cured hams, is made from a single muscle section of the hind legs of pigs that are born, raised, and processed in specific areas of Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, and a curing process that benefits from the unique foggy winter climate near the Po River.
Italian-style prosciutti are produced in many other countries, including North America, but the taste and texture is quite different.
The best way to showcase the complex flavor and texture of a high-quality ham is to slice it thinly and serve with complementary accompaniments such as chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, fresh figs, ripe melon, or toasted bread. However, prosciutto crudo can also be used to cook. If a recipe calls for slices, use a younger, less expensive ham or even a domestic version. If it calls for diced prosciutto, as in a soup, stuffing, or bread, try to find a salumeria that sells leftover prosciutto ends.
Where to Buy Prosciutto
Prosciutto can now be found in most well-stocked deli counters, or presliced with the prepackaged deli meats in supermarkets throughout the United States. However, if you are looking for quality prosciutto, it is usually better to get it freshly sliced from a shop that specializes in imported Italian products or charcuterie. When purchasing prosciutto, the color of the ham should be rosy: If it has a dullish hue or appears dry around the edges, it should be avoided. Excess fat should be trimmed to about a quarter inch, and the ham should be sliced as thin as possible. Often better purveyors will let you taste a small slice first.
The price of prosciutto varies greatly depending on the manufacturer and where it is made. Some American-made varieties of prosciutto can be found for as low as $13 per pound, whereas Prosciutto di Parma or San Daniele can cost $30 per pound or more.
A whole leg of prosciutto can be kept for up to six months in a cool, dry place. Once sliced, the ham will keep for a few days wrapped in plastic and kept in the fridge, but after that, the ham will begin to oxidize and lose its flavor.
Nutrition and Benefits of Prosciutto
Prosciutto is fairly high in fat, cholesterol, and sodium, but is an excellent source of protein, potassium, and iron, so remember your dietary requirements and enjoy accordingly.
US Department of Agriculture. FoodData Central. Ham, prosciutto. Updated April 1, 2019.