Italian Cured Meats: Prosciutto


The Basics

Definition: Hind leg or thigh of a pig, cured and aged. 

Origin: Pre-Roman or Etruscan times. About 2700 years ago. 

Etymology: Comes from Latin pro (before) and exsuctus (to suck out [moisture]). In Italian, prosciutto means "ham" and refers to the pork cut. Thus, Italian speakers will make a distinction between prosciutto crudo ("raw ham") and prosciutto cotto ("cooked ham") in order to refer to the meat's specific preparation. 

Surprise Fun Fact: During the aging process, the ham master will take a horse bone needle and poke the meat. Then, he will smell the needle to check that the texture and the smell of the meat is on point. 

In the first months, the prosciuttai (prosciutto makers) will press the ham to drain the blood from the meat. Once most of the blood is gone, the ham will be washed multiple times until the salt is removed. Then, the ham is hung in a shady and airy location until it is dry. In this step of the curing process, a cold surrounding climate is the best in creating high quality prosciutto. When the ham is fully dried, the prosciuttai apply the sugnatura (signature) to the ham. The sugna is comprised of salt, pepper, fat, and herbs, which are spread over the exposed part of the meat. This is to protect the meat from cracking and to aid in the aging process. At the end of the aging process, each prosciutto is branded with an identifying symbol. 

Freshly cut Prosciutto.  License . Source: HungryNerd

Freshly cut Prosciutto. License. Source: HungryNerd

Curing Process: The entire process can last anywhere from nine months to two years. The length of the curing process depends mainly on the size of the ham. To start the curing process, the meat is manually cleaned and salted each day for a month. Salt is an important factor because it is antimicrobial and it gives the meat some extra flavor. In addition, salt will slow down the oxidation process to keep the meat from going bad. 

Some types of prosciutto are cured with nitrites to give the meat a slightly different flavor. However, PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) meats are only cured with sea salt. The EU defines PDO meats in order to protect the names of traditional products. In other words, the EU does this to maintain the quality criteria and manufacturing style of a particular product. 

Use: Prosciutto crudo is usually served as an antipasto. It can be eaten alone or paired with breadsticks, cantaloupe, and honeydew. It can also be added to cooked vegetables, pasta sauce, or other meats. Many places like to serve prosciutto in sandwiches or on breads. 

Eat: The fat should never be yellow, this means the prosciutto is going bad. The fat should be left on the meat while eating. Prosciutto should be sliced thinly and consumed at room temperature. As you have read, there is a lot of time and effort that goes into making fine prosciutto. Thus, enjoy each bite and taste the love. 

Types of Prosciutto

Prosciutto di Parma:

  • PDO products have to be produced a certain way to be titled the way they are. For example, Prosciutto di Parma must be made of pigs that are raised in Emilia, Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Lazio, Abruzzo, or Molise and the ham must be produced in the province of Parma. The ham is special because of the climate. It is known that the wind blows up from Versilia, through the olive and pine trees of Val di Magra, and is enriched by chestnut scents in Apennines before it arrives in Parma. This gives the prosciutto a solid amount of sweetness.

Prosciutto di San Daniele:

  • San Daniele rivals Parma for this famous prosciutto. The town is high in the hills that allows for salty breezes from the Adriatic Sea to dry the hams. Similar to Prosciutto di Parma, the pigs must be from a specific area in Italy to achieve PDO status. The pigs must be at least 9 months old and must weigh at least 350 pounds before slaughter. The hams are salted for a shorter period of time than Prosciutto di Parma, which allows for a less salty and sweeter meat.

Prosciutto di Modena:

  • Most prosciutti are generally made the same way with slight differences. Prosciutto di Modena is made with the thighs of selected white pigs. While similar to the Parma, it is described as having a pleasant aroma and delicate taste. 

Other types of Prosciutto include: Prosciutto Veneto, Berico-Euganeo, Prosciutto di Norcia, Prosciutto di Carpegna, Prosciutto Toscano, Jamon de Bosses.