What is Prosciutto?
Prosciutto is the king of Italian Charcuterie. It has been made for hundreds of years and is present in many of the Italian dishes that we love so much. Unlike pasta, pizza or mozzarella making Prosciutto isn’t just an overnight process. Sometimes it undergoes aging for up to 2 years in a cellar to reach succulent perfection.
How exactly is prosciutto meat made?
First you need to know that the wonderful pigs that make prosciutto are not the same used for regular pork cuts. That is because prosciutto needs to age and have its hallmark fat rind. The animals follow a special diet which helps them put on fat in all the right places while giving the meat a bolder taste – this is a key part of making prosciutto.
From the beginning to the end, prosciutto goes through various stages of production. Depending on the region these methods can vary slightly from region to region. Let’s take a look at just how Prosciutto is made.
10 Steps to Making Prosciutto di Parma
1. Only the finest legs are chosen for Prosciutto
Prosciutto di Parma, the most well known Italian prosciutto, dictates that these legs cannot less than about 15 pounds when sold. This means that each leg has to be much heavier (around 20 pounds or more) as Prosciutto di Parma loses liquid throughout the curing process.
2. Salatura (The Salting)
After each leg of prosciutto is kept at temperature for 24-36 hours it will receive its first “Salatura”, the salting. Salt acts as a natural antimicrobial and aids in the aging process. The process of making prosciutto what it is, is an art but the ingredients needed are simple: Meat and Salt!
Pro Tip: if the prosciutto you’re buying contains more than pork meat and salt, it is not quality prosciutto. If you want the real thing look out for DOP, IGP markings and only ingredients you can pronounce.
3. Sit & Wait (and dream of tasty, tasty pork)
After a week the legs are cleaned, massaged (Yes I said massaged!) and lightly salted again. Then they will rest again for approximately another 15 days at a controlled temperature and humidity. Carefully controlling the temperature and humidity is key in order to avoid any bacteria or mold to grow.
4. Let the prosciutto aging begin
After this second salting the legs are kept for about 3 months to age at the perfect temperature. During this phase aeration is very important.
5. Weight Loss is inevitable
At the end of the 80-90 days the Prosciutto legs start looking like a real Prosciutto, they are washed with warm water in order to take off salt crystals and any bacteria growing on top of the meat. At this point the Prosciutto has already lost 3 % of its original weight.
6. Breathe in some fresh air
This is where the magic begins with the use of a Scalera. The prosciutto are hung up in rows with a distance of at least 4-5 feet between them and the windows are opened to let the legs receive its most important ingredient “Fresh Air”. Although things are more controlled now, this part of the aging process has not changed much.
7. Six months later…
After six months the Prosciutto is covered with “Sugna” suh-neah, literally pork fat. This protects the part of the leg that is exposed and gives it back some humidity. This can only be done by hand because only an expert eye is able to understand how much sugna is needed for each prosciutto.
8. Poking the prosciutto
Around 10-11 months of age each prosciutto is poked with a special little bone, which comes from the shin of a horse ( I am not making this up, I promise). The expert prosciutto maker pokes the leg 4 or 5 times and is able to determine if it is aging well. At this time the expert is also able to smell if anything is wrong with the aging process. Finding a not-so-good leg of Parma ham can happen but nowadays it is quite rare as the process is very controlled.
9. Ready for market
At 12 months of age the poking process is repeated and the Prosciutti that pass the test are now available for sale.
10. The Older, the better
Wait another 6 months and now we’re talking… The highest quality (and most expensive) Prosciutto is aged to 18 months.
Pro tip: looking to impress your dinner guests? Whip up a charcuterie board with 18 month old Prosciutto, some cubes of Pecorino cheese and pair it with some Italian vino.
Unique facts you need to know about Prosciutto (to up your food lover’s expertise)
- A lot of people mistakenly take off the fat (from one foodie to another, really what is prosciutto without the tasty, tasty fat?!). Prosciutto is meant to be eaten with the fat on, it is part of the experience, and lends to prosciutto’s signature taste that you love so much.
- Wondering why quality (ie. aged to 18 months) prosciutto costs a pretty penny? Every leg of prosciutto loses more than 35% of its original weight from step one to 10.
- Ready to impress some of your foodie friends? Bet they don’t know where the name “Prosciutto” comes from. Although, a few etymologies are floating around, the word “Perexsuctum” which literally means “Dried” was used by the romans 2500 years ago when the art of making prosciutto was born.
- About 80 Million legs of prosciutto are produced in Italy every year. Approximately 10 million of these legs go abroad. That means on average every Italian consumes about one prosciutto a year!
Think Prosciutto di Parma is the only kind of Prosciutto you can ever taste? Well think again! Prosciutto di Carpegna, made right here in Le Marche, is considered one of the top types of prosciutto in Italy and a personal favourite of mine. Do you have a favourite type of prosciutto? Let us know in the comments below.