Even those who aren’t particularly interested in food know that prosciutto is something special. Doubtlessly one of the world's most famous Italian cured meats; it has been beloved as a snack, deli meat, and pizza topping (among others) for centuries.
We’ve decided to compile answers to the most Googled questions about prosciutto in one place. From what it is to various types to how to keep it to ensure long shelf life, you’ll find the answers you were (likely) looking for without going the extra mile.
Yummy Bazaar, as dedicated as ever to bringing gourmet-quality food to all who wish to satisfy their cravings, keeps a carefully curated collection of Italian cured meats, well-stocked with favorites like soppressata, guanciale, and, of course, prosciutto. Give it a try if you want to confirm it’s really that good.
Meanwhile, let’s get down to all the interesting nitty-gritty details about prosciutto.
What is Prosciutto?
Prosciutto is a traditional Italian meat product made from the pig's hind leg. In Italian, “prosciutto” isn’t a name for one precise product; it just means “ham,” and Italians use the term liberally.
However, the rest of the world is more strict with the term. The product most people refer to as prosciutto is, in reality, Prosciutto Crudo, a dry-cured ham. But there’s another type of prosciutto popular in Italy, called Prosciutto Cotto, a cooked ham.
Non-Italian manufacturers often used to refer to prosciutto Cotto as Italian ham instead of prosciutto Cotto. That said, lately, the tide has started to change as more and more people have learned about the term.
Still, as of right now, if you ask an average person what they imagine when thinking about prosciutto, they would describe Prosciutto Crudo.
Is Prosciutto a Ham or Beef?
Prosciutto means “ham” in Italian, so there’s the answer. It’s made exclusively from pork, from the pig’s hind leg, to be precise. I
A similar cured product can be made from beef, but it’s an entirely separate thing from the prosciutto, called Bresaola.
What is Prosciutto Cotto?
Prosciutto Cotto is a cooked Italian ham. The manufacturing process, while significantly shorter and more straightforward than that of prosciutto Crudo, is highly precise and lasts up to four days.
To make prosciutto Cotto, a pig’s hind leg is carefully deboned and defatted. Once the meat has been cleaned, it’s placed in a brine made with water, salt, and a seasoning blend that’s usually the maker’s signature touch. To ensure the meat is appropriately tender and flavorful, it’s left in brine for hours upon days (around 72 hours is considered ideal). Once the meat is extracted, it’s carefully massaged to ensure brine has properly penetrated all parts of the chunk.
Finally, comes the time for prosciutto Cotto to be cooked. Boiling is the traditional method, but steaming is more common nowadays, especially among large manufacturers. Depending on the size of the cut, the process can last anywhere from 12 to 24 hours (average instruction calls for 1 ½ hour for every 3lbs).
Prosciutto Cotto is supposed to be bright pink with a thin white layer of fat, with a tender, juicy texture.
What is Prosciutto Crudo?
Prosciutto Crudo is the Italian cured ham most imagine when thinking about prosciutto. It’s made from the same pork cut as prosciutto Cotto, but the curing process can take years.
In the beginning, the meat is thoroughly cleaned, but instead of deboning and defatting, it’s covered entirely with salt and left for several weeks until all moisture is gone.
Then the meat is carefully washed and seasoned by hand. As with prosciutto Cotto, prosciutto Crudo seasoning blends are unique to the artisans responsible for making it. Different regions have different preferences when it comes to spices.
At last, the meat is left to fully cure in a specialized facility with tightly controlled temperature and humidity levels. The process can last anywhere from 12 up to 36 months.
Prosciutto Crudo is considered a crown jewel of Italian cured meats. Many of its regional varieties have a protected designation of origin (PDO), meaning they cannot be made anywhere else.
Prosciutto Crudo ranges from reddish-pink to brownish-red with wide white strikes of fat. Its texture is buttery but chewy.
What Does Prosciutto Taste Like?
Prosciutto Cotto has a light and mildly meaty flavor, with subtle hints of herbs if the meat has been additionally seasoned.
Prosciutto Crudo is more flavorful and savory, with delicate sweet undertones. The longer it’s aged, the more intense and complex the flavor.
Is Prosciutto Just Bacon? What’s the Difference Between Bacon and Prosciutto?
While prosciutto and bacon look somewhat similar, they’re decidenot the same. They’re not even made from the same cut of pork. Prosciutto (both Cotto and Crudo) is made from the pig's hind leg, while bacon is made from a pig's belly, sides or back.
There are some similarities in the flavors, as both are salt-cured pork products, but prosciutto is lighter and sweeter, while bacon is fattier and more savory.
Is Prosciutto the Same as Pancetta? What’s the Difference Between Pancetta and Prosciutto?
Pancetta is another of Italian cured meats, and it has more similarities with bacon than with prosciutto. For one, pancetta, too, is made from pork belly. For another, their flavor profiles are very close, aside from the fact that pancetta usually lacks bacon’s smokiness. Unless it’s Pancetta Affumicata, which is smoked after the curing process. Prosciutto flavor is lighter, more tender, and sweeter, with aged prosciutto Crudo more intense and complex.
Is it Okay to Eat Raw Prosciutto (Straight from the Package)?
Yes, both prosciutto Crudo and prosciutto Cotto can be eaten straight from the package. Prosciutto Cotto is technically already cooked, so it’s not raw in the first place. Prosciutto Crudo, while dried and not cooked and thus technically raw, is entirely safe for consumption due to curing.
Do You Cook Prosciutto?
While prosciutto doesn’t need cooking, it can be used as an ingredient in more complex dishes, like grilled sandwiches, pizzas, soups, and pasta. The trick is to be attentive and not cook prosciutto for more than a few minutes, as overcooking can ruin prosciutto’s texture and render it completely flavorless. Around 5-10 minutes are enough. Cook in stages for dishes requiring more time, ex. add prosciutto to a soup only a few minutes before taking it off the heat.
What Should I Use Prosciutto For? What Is the Best Way to Eat Prosciutto?
Prosciutto Cotto is most often used as typical deli meat, and it’s a popular ingredient for grilled sandwiches and paninis, as well as a pizza topping. High-quality prosciutto Cotto (Alta Qualità) makes a great addition to the charcuterie board since it pairs well with most cheeses.
Prosciutto Crudo is served primarily as an appetizer or as a prominent ingredient on a charcuterie board. Ideally, it’s only paired with a few elements accentuating its complex flavor, like cheese, sweet fruits, and bread. It’s a popular bruschetta topping and is often used in fresh green salads. However, it can also be used to substitute for other flavorful cured meats in most recipes (guanciale, pancetta, bacon, etc.). It’s suitable for pizzas, creamy pasta, and even soups. Though, admittedly, many consider it a waste.
What Cheeses Go With Prosciutto?
Prosciutto Cotto’s mild flavor lends itself well to most cheeses, from soft and mild, to hard and intensely flavored, though semi-hard cheeses with strong flavor are considered the best pairing: Gorgonzola, Scamorza, and Provolone among Italian cheeses, and Gouda, Gruyere, Roquefort, or Emmentaler from foreign ones. Salty blue cheeses work best when balanced with sweeter ingredients like fruit and honey.
Prosciutto Crudo goes best with soft cheeses with mellow flavors. Since it’s plenty salty by itself, pairing it with blue cheeses, gruyere, or cheddar can be too much. Mozzarella, stracciatella, burrata, and ricotta are considered ideal, but a milder prosciutto Crudo can also go well with a moderately salty cheese like provolone.
How Long Does Prosciutto Last?
Pro tip: pay attention to the prosciutto packaging. Different manufacturing methods mean different shelf lives for prosciutto.
Generally, prosciutto can last up to a year when properly stored.
Sliced prosciutto has a shorter life than an uncut chunk of meat. Since prosciutto is sold in slices far more often than solid chunks, we’ll focus on sliced prosciutto.
Prosciutto slices can last up to 4 months in an unopened vacuum-sealed package (consult the packaging and add around a week to the best-by date) and around 3-5 days after the package has been opened. Keeping prosciutto in a refrigerator or a freezer will prolong its shelf life.
Should I Refrigerate Prosciutto?
Prosciutto Cotto should be kept in a refrigerator at no higher than 45°F.
Prosciutto Crudo can be kept in a pantry at room temperature unless you have extreme heat on your hand. 65°F is considered the maximum safe temperature for prosciutto Crudo, so if the temperature in your house regularly reaches higher degrees, we’d recommend keeping it in a fridge from the get-go, if possible. Keeping food at a lower temperature than recommended is always safer than risking exposure to a higher temperature.
Keeping prosciutto in the fridge will lengthen its shelf life and preserve its flavor qualities better.
Is It Okay to Freeze Prosciutto?
In theory, you can freeze prosciutto to lengthen its shelf life. Transfer to an air-tight container, and you can count on it lasting up to a year.
However, most industry professionals advise against it since freezing and thawing are likely to damage the texture and flavor. Thawed prosciutto will never be as tender as it was before freezing, and the taste will lose most of the subtler undertones.
Besides, prosciutto is always better the fresher it is, so it’s best to buy in smaller batches and consume it within a week after purchasing.
Why Does My Prosciutto Have Crystals? Has it Gone Bad?
White crystal-like specks on prosciutto are something to be excited about. They’re called Tyrosine Crystals, and they’re indicative of prosciutto done right. Tyrosine is an amino acid that crystallizes during ham maturation when the meat loses moisture, forming the specks. Tyrosine crystals indicate that the curing process was done with proper care and dedication.
If you find additional white dots on the surface of prosciutto that weren’t there before, it’s still likely a good thing! White mold on the surface is good mold when it comes to cured meats! It’s of penicillin species (Penicillium Nalgiovense) and usually indicates that curing was done correctly and the bacteria is being successfully fought off. We already talked about this in our Chorizo FAQ.
Now, if the prosciutto has developed a blue-gray-green hairy mold? That’s another story.
How Do You Know if Prosciutto Has Gone Bad?
Visual queues are the clearest indicators. The green-blue hairy mold? That’s a harmful mold. That’s prosciutto gone bad. If the white mold has developed inside the prosciutto and not just the surface, it might be a pathogenic mold, and it’s better not to take any risks.
But prosciutto can look fine while it has already started to go bad. If the process has gone far enough, the smell will be another indicator. The smell of spoiled or contaminated prosciutto will be more pungent going on rancid.
Proper storage is also important. If prosciutto package you receive is damaged in any way, contact the manufacturer immediately to learn about potential effects.If the prosciutto looks and smells fine, but it's past the best-by date by over a week, don’t take an unnecessary chance; just dispose of it.