Italy is well-known for its cured meats, and among Italian cured meats, prosciutto doubtlessly takes the crown of popularity. Even if your interest in gastronomic spaces is mild and you don’t often recognize gourmet products by the name, the chances are still high that you know a thing or two about Italian cured meats and prosciutto specifically.
These thinly sliced dark pink chewy and savory salumi is a frequent topping for pizzas, sandwiches, salads, and a popular, almost ever-present ingredient of charcuterie boards. With its reputation as a high-end, gourmet meat product, prosciutto’s popularity outside Italy only grows as time passes, and it’s not likely to let up anytime soon.
But admit it, when you imagine prosciutto, you have a particular expectation of what you’ll see on your plate: the dark, thin, cured slices that look similar to Spanish jamón or German black forest ham.
The picture is so ubiquitously associated with prosciutto that some people had even felt cheated and tricked when what they got had little similarities to what they expected. The mishap is more frequent than you might think and stems from the misconception that there’s only one variety of prosciutto around. In fact, what we call prosciutto is just one subtype, called prosciutto Crudo. The other, no less prevalent in Italy but less frequently associated with the name outside the country, is prosciutto Cotto.
If you’ve never tasted prosciutto Cotto (or Crudo, for that matter) before and wish to compare the flavors, you can check out Yummy Bazaar’s newly assembled selection of Italian cured meats for prosciutto and other salumi.
Meanwhile, let’s break down what the word prosciutto means, the differences and similarities between prosciutto Crudo and prosciutto Cotto, and the best ways to use each.
What is prosciutto?
While the word “prosciutto” has a powerful association with a specific type of cured meat to the rest of the world, in Italy, “prosciutto” simply means “ham,” any kind of it. The product we associate prosciutto with is prosciutto Crudo, a dry-cured ham (Crudo meaning raw or crude). The other type of prosciutto is cooked ham, or, as Italians call it, prosciutto Cotto (Cotto meaning cooked).
Over time, the term became so strongly with the most popular varieties that non-Italians started using prosciutto and prosciutto Crudo interchangeably, and the terms became nigh synonymous for foreign consumers, especially when other countries began manufacturing similar products and labeling them prosciutto.
The term prosciutto itself isn’t protected (though places of origin for certain variations are), so technically, any country can produce prosciutto using the same technique and cuts of meat as Italians. They just can’t label that product Prosciutto di Parma, for example.
On the other hand, Prosciutto Cotto is simply called ham or Italian ham if the brand manufacturing the product is specific about it (they usually aren’t, unless the brand in question is from Italy). Italian brands label their cooked ham slices prosciutto Cotto because that’s precisely what it is.
And there’s the reason for frequent mishaps. If the restaurant serves prosciutto Cotto, the product will have little similarity to what prosciutto is supposed to look like to an average consumer.
How is prosciutto made?
Prosciutto is made from a hind leg of a pig. The meat quality is typically strictly controlled, especially for prosciutto Crudo, as it’s considered an artisanal product, which means that the animals are kept on a special diet during their lives.
Prosciutto Cotto's production process is relatively simple and doesn’t differentiate much from other cooked hams, though its specifics are unique. After thoroughly cleaning the meat, it’s cooked at a tightly controlled temperature to ensure it attains the characteristic soft and juicy texture. High-quality prosciutto Cotto is supposed to have a very tender, melt-in-your-mouth feel. Frequently it is additionally brined and seasoned with herbs and spices to achieve a more unique flavor.
Prosciutto Crudo’s production process is more complicated. Once the pig’s leg has been thoroughly cleaned, it’s covered with salt (usually by hand, often by a person called the salt-master, Maestro Salatore) and left to rest for a few weeks so that the salt can draw out all the moisture from the meat.
After the meat is deemed sufficiently dry, the pork leg is washed, seasoned (again, by hand), and left to dry for at least 12 months. The longer the aging process, the more potent and more complex the flavor profile of the final product.
What is prosciutto Cotto?
Prosciutto Cotto is a type of Italian cooked ham, most often steam-cooked but sometimes boiled or baked.
It’s made with high-quality pork from the pig’s hind legs. The cooking process can last up to four days.
To make prosciutto Cotto, the pig’s leg is deboned and very carefully defatted (prosciutto Cotto should have a very thin but visible layer of fat). After that, the meat is placed in a brine made with water, salt, and seasonings, which are unique to each specific recipe. This part of the process can last up to 72 hours to ensure the meat is adequately tenderized and flavored. After being extracted from the brine, the pig’s leg is carefully massaged to ensure that the brine injection is homogenous throughout.
Using flavor enhancers, emulsifiers, nitrites, and nitrates instead of (or alongside) brine is typical in mass manufacturing of cheaper, lesser quality prosciutto Cotto.
Finally, comes the time to cook the ham. Most manufacturers use the steam-cooking method, though boiling is traditional, and many artisanal shops still prefer using it over steam. Balancing the cooking time and temperature is the biggest secret to a high-quality prosciutto Cotto. The average math is 1 ½ hour for every 3lbs of meat. Depending on the size of the cut, this can mean anywhere between 12 and 24 hours.
Prosciutto Cotto is supposed to have a bright pink color with a thin layer of white fat, a tender and juicy texture, and a light, delicate flavor profile.
Overcooking is the easiest way to ruin prosciutto Cotto, as it becomes hard, gamy, and loses all flavor complexity.
Types of prosciutto Cotto:
There are several categories of prosciutto Cotto, determined by the humidity percentage in the cooked meat. The lower the humidity, the higher quality of the prosciutto in question.
The “regular” humidity level in what is referred to as “simple” prosciutto is supposed to be between 79.5% and 82%.
In mid-tier “choice” prosciutto (Scelto), the humidity level is supposed to vary between 76.5% and 79.5%.
And in high-quality prosciutto (Alta Qualità), the humidity isn’t supposed to be greater than 76.5%.
The humidity level in the meat depends on multiple factors, including the water amount in the brine, the massaging method and length, and the cooking process.
Best uses for prosciutto Cotto:
Prosciutto Cotto is most often enjoyed as deli meat, in sandwiches and paninis. It’s also one of the most popular classic Italian pizza toppings.
And, of course, slices of high-quality prosciutto Cotto make a beautiful addition to any charcuterie board you’re planning to serve as an appetizer.
What to pair prosciutto Cotto with?
Prosciutto Cotto’s delicate but strong flavor lends itself well to most cheeses, from soft and mild, to hard and intensely flavored. Stronger, semi-hard cheeses are considered a classic pairing since they balance the tender meat and delicate flavor. Think Gorgonzola, Scamorza, or Provolone among traditional Italian cheeses. If you’re brave enough to venture outside Italy, Gouda, Gruyere, or Emmentaler would also pair great with prosciutto Cotto. If the cheese you choose is of a saltier variety (Gorgonzola or Roquefort, for example), adding a sweeter element with fruit or honey is considered a good counter-balance.
A crisp white wine is most Chefs’ drink of choice to accompany prosciutto Cotto.
What is prosciutto Crudo?
Prosciutto Crudo is Italian cured ham. One of the most famous Italian cured meats, it’s made only from high-quality pork from the pig’s hind legs, but unlike prosciutto Cotto, the process can take years.
The first step after thoroughly cleaning the pig’s leg is to salt it and leave it for several weeks so that salt can take out all the blood and moisture and keep away the bacteria (so it’s safe to eat raw prosciutto).
After sufficient time has passed, the meat is carefully washed and seasoned by hand according to a specific recipe. Certain types of prosciutto Crudo can only be seasoned with salt, while others include a blend of spices. It depends on the region; if the shop is family-owned, the recipe used is often unique to the artisans involved. Prosciutto Crudo is typically considered an artisanal product even when manufactured by large brands instead of small shops, as initial salting and subsequent seasoning are usually both done by hand.
After the meat is properly seasoned, it’s left to dry-age in a very tightly controlled environment at specific temperatures and humidity. This process can last between 12 and 36 months.
Prosciutto Crudo’s color ranges from reddish-pink to brownish-red with a wide strike of fat. The longer the prosciutto has been aged, the more intense and complex the flavor. It’s supposed to be intense and savory but with delicate sweet undertones.
Types of prosciutto Crudo:
As mentioned above, while neither prosciutto nor prosciutto Crudo is a protected term, several varieties of prosciutto Crudo are. Prosciutto can be manufactured anywhere (not necessarily in Italy), but certain regional types have protected status, which means they cannot be produced elsewhere. There are overall about a dozen protected prosciutto varieties, with the following five being the most famous:
Prosciutto di Parma is made according to strict guidelines, closely monitored by Consorzio di Prosciutto di Parma. Only particular heritage breed pigs with specific diets (including leftover whey from parmesan manufacturing) are used. Prosciutto di Parma has a very complex flavor, more delicate, sweet, and less savory than standard prosciutto Crudo. It’s often called King of Italian Hams.
Prosciutto di San Daniele can only be categorized as such if it’s made from one of the particular pig breeds raised according to old traditions in one of 10 specific Italian regions. Its distinct characteristic is that the meat is pressed for a few days after salting, making it more flavorful and giving it the signature guitar shape.
Prosciutto Toscano has the most distinct flavor among all prosciutto Crudo types due to its unique curing process that uses not just salt but spices like black pepper, rosemary, and juniper. It has a deep red color and a sharp, peppery flavor.
Prosciutto di Moderna production process is just as strictly regulated as the di Parma variety. If it’s not made around the basin of the Panaro river, it’s not prosciutto di Moderna. Every step of the manufacturing process is tightly controlled. No additive can be used aside from salt. Prosciutto di Moderna has a sweeter, milder flavor.
Prosciutto di Carpegna is only made from a hind leg of the Pesante Padano pig breed and cured for at least 14 months (though 20 months is the standard). Prosciutto di Carpegna is coated in a lard-and-spice blend, giving it a softer texture and a distinct aroma.
Best uses for prosciutto Crudo:
High-quality prosciutto Crudo is best eaten by itself or paired with only a couple of other ingredients.
It’s often the star of charcuterie boards due to its intense and complex flavor profile but can be successfully used as an ingredient in a fresh salad with few ingredients, sweet fruits, or as a topping on a bruschetta made with rustic bread and paired with mild creamy cheese.
What to pair prosciutto Crudo with?
Prosciutto Crudo has a more complex flavor profile than prosciutto Cotto, with a more intense and savory flavor, so it works best if paired with milder and sweeter ingredients. Soft cheese varieties with less intense, more creamy tastes like mozzarella and burrata are considered an ideal pairing. It’s best to avoid saltier cheeses like gruyere, cheddar, or any blue cheese since prosciutto Crudo is plenty savory on its own. Though a milder, sweeter Prosciutto Crudo, like Prosciutto di Moderna, will pair well with a moderately strong cheese like provolone.
For the same reason, it works even better paired with sweet fruit than prosciutto Crudo. Sweeter and juicier the fruit, the better. Melon (especially cantaloupe) is considered an ideal pairing, but pears, peaches, and figs work just as well.
A great example of prosciutto Crudo use (aside from a charcuterie board) would be a simple toast with ricotta spread and prosciutto, either on their own or with a few thin pear slices.
Light, floral white wine is most Chefs’ drink of choice to accompany prosciutto Crudo.