Prosciutto Crudo in Italy
A Guide to Italian Prosciutto Crudo
The word prosciutto simply means ham in Italian and it may be either crudo (dry-cured) or cotto (cooked). Generally, the word denotes the cured variety, the production of which dates back to ancient times when the process of salting and drying was used to preserve meat. Nowadays, there are many types of prosciutto, ranging from salty to sweet, from delicately smooth to more robust textures.
Here is the Local Aromas guide to everything you need to know about prosciutto crudo in Italy.
What does it mean?
The word prosciutto comes from two Latin words: pre (before) and exsuctus (lacking juice/sucked out moisture). The modern pronunciation is probably influenced by the word prosciugato (dried).
How is it made?
Prosciutto crudo is made from the hind leg of the pig. The legs are cleaned, covered with salt, and pressed to draw out the moisture. They are then left to rest for a period of two to four months to ensure the salt is absorbed.
The next stage is to wash off the salt before hanging the legs for a few days to dry off the excess moisture. They will then be hung to cure for a period which can vary from 18 months to 3 years depending on the variety. The ventilation, humidity, and temperature of the curing room are carefully controlled as this will affect the eventual flavor and texture of the ham.
What are the varieties?
There are multiple types of prosciutto crudo made all over Italy which can vary greatly in quality and taste depending on everything from the breed of pig to the techniques used. To ensure that what you are buying is of a high standard and 100% made in Italy, look for the letters DOP (or PDO in English) which signify Denominazione di Origine Protetta or Protected Designation of Origin. DOP identifies products that have been produced, processed, and prepared in a specific geographical area using the recognized know-how of local producers and ingredients from that same region. Some sub-standard, non-DOP products use additional nitrates during curing to enhance the pink color and add flavor.
The most famous prosciuttos in Italy are Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele, these prized varieties undergo strict quality control and will usually be the most expensive. Aside from these, there are many other excellent regional variations, from those enhanced with natural flavorings such as peppercorns, juniper berries or herbs, to the saltier, chewier mountain hams from central Italy.
How to buy it?
The best prosciutto is sold in delicatessens or food markets and will be sliced to order. It is priced by the kilogram and should be ordered either by the number of slices or by weight. Often top-quality prosciutto will be expertly sliced by hand for maximum flavor but for silky, thin, melt-in-the-mouth slices it should be sliced by machine.
How to eat it?
There are never-ending ways to serve prosciutto crudo. Most commonly it is eaten by itself, as part of a cured meat and cheese tasting board, in a sandwich with mozzarella or draped across hot pizza as soon as it comes out of the oven. During the summer months in Rome, it can often be found wrapped around succulent cantaloupe melon or paired with fresh, sweet figs.