Many people who dine at Italian restaurants have become confused by the definition of the word "prosciutto." In Italian, this means "ham." In English, it always refers to slightly undercooked, thin-cut ham. But Italians have "prosciutto crudo" (raw ham) and "prosciutto cotto" (cooked ham).
Curing the ham itself is an intricate process that involves 9-18 months of cleaning, salting, pressing and hanging the meat. It hangs until it completely dries, and the length of time depends entirely on the humidity of the climate. The drier the climate, the faster it dries. Special care must be taken during the curing process to make sure the meat does not mold. Professional Italian meat producers like Volpi have this process down to an art.
After the process is completed, the ham is kept whole until sale. Once sliced, it becomes a perishable food item and will not keep as well. Prosciutto was originally developed as a way to keep meat without refrigeration.
Prosciutto is typically served in paper-thin slices as antipasto, an Italian appetizer. It can be wrapped around melons such as cantaloupe and honeydew. It can be eaten with sautéed spring vegetables like green beans and asparagus. Sometimes, it is used as a stuffing in other meats, such as chicken breast or veal. Oftentimes, it is eaten in different types of pasta. More commonly, it is seen as a pizza topping.
Prosciutto can be differentiated by its processor and place of origin, and some parts of Italy have a Protected Designation of Origin. Parma is one example. To be labeled “Parma ham," the prosciutto must be cured in a certain manner, one that uses the meat of pigs that have consumed the leftover curds and whey after making parmesan cheese.
No matter the type of prosciutto, it is one of the most popular Italian meats that goes well in many types of dishes. The flavorful meat adds a great flavor, whether you order it in a restaurant or use it in your own kitchen.