Prosciutto is an all-natural, salt-cured, air-dried ham that has been a staple of Italian cuisine for more than 3,000 years. Known for its delicate, salty-sweet flavor, the name itself denotes the process by which it is made. Prosciutto literally means "thoroughly dried" or more literally, "deprived of all liquid." But that's not to say that all prosciutto is the same. There are two main types of prosciutto: crudo -- the dried, salt-cured delicacy, and cotto, which is akin to regular cooked ham. Most Americans are familiar with prosciutto crudo, which is generally sliced paper thin and used in appetizers and main dishes. But the difference in prosciutto doesn't stop there. The taste of this highly desired ham varies according to the region in which it was produced.
The Proper Feed for the Right Hogs
Prosciutto is made from the meaty thigh region above the hock of a pig's hind leg. In Italy, the process of turning a simple ham into prosciutto is taken very seriously. Certain standards must be adhered to in order for the prosciutto to be designated as a highest-quality Protected Denomination of Origin or PDO prosciutto. For example, laws governing the production of prosciutto in Italy state that all hogs bound for that destiny must be born and raised in specific regions. Imported pigs are forbidden. There are also strict rules governing the type of diet the hogs are fed. For example, prosciutto di Parma is made from hogs that are fed a diet consisting of whey made from local Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
Prosciutto crudo is the traditional, air-dried, salt-cured ham that most Americans refer to simply as "prosciutto." It is known as one of the healthiest hams because no artificial ingredients or nitrates are added to the meat. At the beginning of the curing process, the fat is trimmed from the leg that is then covered in sea salt and left to hang in a well-ventilated, temperature-controlled room for a month. According to the Dellano website, after this time, the hams are usually washed and dried, then covered in sugna -- a combination of salt, pepper, lard and sometimes herbs.
Making prosciutto crudo is a painstaking process. The ham is left to hang until it is dry, which can take from about 16 months to three years. Depending on the curing process and the region, prosciutto crudo is often sold as either sweet or savory.
Prosciutto Crudo According to Region
In America, the Italian ham referred to as prosciutto is generally prosciutto di Parma or prosciutto di San Daniele, both of which are made in central and northern Italy. Prosciutto di Parma is produced only in the province of Parma in northern Italy. Prosciutto di San Daniele, from the Frioul region, is cured differently than prosciuttos of other regions in that the hams are stacked on top of each other during the drying process. The high altitude and dry air are conducive to that form of curing. Both are considered "sweet" even though the salt is evident in every bite. The flavors are comparable, and these varieties can be substituted for one another.
The various types of prosciutto include:
- prosciutto di Parma, which is the most popular in Italy, known for its sweet, rather nutty flavor and creamy texture.
- prosciutto di San Daniele, which is is slightly sweeter in flavor and the meat is darker than prosciutto di Parma.
- prosciutto Toscano, which is comes from Tuscany and is considered savory due to its incredibly salty nature and inclusion of flavors such as pepper, garlic, rosemary and juniper. It is rarely found in America.
- culatello, which is is made from a much smaller, boneless cut of the pig's thigh that is aged and is often cured with wine, which gives it a deep red color. Technically, it is considered a salami, even though it comes from the same pork cut as traditional prosciutto. Like prosciutto Toscano, it is difficult to find in America.
Serving and Purchasing Prosciutto Crudo
Prosciutto crudo is widely popular as an ingredient in antipasto. It is often paired with fresh fruit such as cantaloupe, honeydew melon or figs. It is also eaten on sandwiches or in Caprese salad -- the combination of tomato, fresh basil and mozzarella cheese. It can be used in sauces or eaten as a side dish with vegetables.
When purchasing this Italian dried meat, the Dellano website warns that you should choose a ham with white or pinkish fat. Yellow fat is a sign of rancidity. A true Italian prosciutto also will bear the trademark of the region on the outside of the ham.
For those who do not care for the bold flavor of traditional prosciutto crudo or who must steer clear of the salt content for health reasons, there is prosciutto cotto. Although it bears the name "prosciutto," the cotto variety is the opposite of crudo in that it is cooked instead of dried and is very low in sodium. In Italy, it is sold as a deli-style ham. But it is different than most American cooked ham in that it is not smoked or sweetened.