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Prosciutto (//, Italian: [proʃˈʃutto], Italian ham) is a dry-cured ham that is usually thinly sliced and served uncooked; this style is called prosciutto crudo in Italian and is distinguished from cooked ham, prosciutto cotto.
The word prosciutto derives from Latin pro (before) + exsuctus (past participle of exsugere "to suck out [the moisture]"); the Portuguese presunto has the same etymology. Compare also the modern Italian verb prosciugare "to dry thoroughly" (from Latin pro + exsucare "to extract the juices from").
Prosciutto is made from either a pig's or a wild boar's ham (hind leg or thigh). The process of making prosciutto can take anywhere from nine months to two years, depending on the size of the ham.
A writer on Italian food, Bill Buford, describes talking to an old Italian butcher who says:
When I was young, there was one kind of prosciutto. It was made in the winter, by hand, and aged for two years. It was sweet when you smelled it. A profound perfume. Unmistakable. To age a prosciutto is a subtle business. If it's too warm, the aging process never begins. The meat spoils. If it's too dry, the meat is ruined. It needs to be damp but cool. The summer is too hot. In the winter—that's when you make salumi. Your prosciutto. Your soppressata. Your sausages.—
Today, the ham is first cleaned, salted, and left for about two months. During this time the ham is pressed, gradually and carefully so as to avoid breaking the bone, to drain all blood left in the meat. Next, it is washed several times to remove the salt, and is hung in a dark, well-ventilated environment. The surrounding air is important to the final quality of the ham; the best results are obtained in a cold climate. The ham is then left until dry. The amount of time this takes varies, depending on the local climate and size of the ham. When the ham is completely dry, it is hung to air, either at room temperature or in a controlled environment, for up to eighteen months.
Prosciutto is sometimes cured with nitrites (either sodium or potassium), which are generally used in other hams to produce the desired rosy color and unique flavour but only sea salt is used in Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) hams. Such rosy pigmentation is produced by a direct chemical reaction of nitric oxide with myoglobin to form nitrosomyoglobin, followed by concentration of the pigments due to drying. Bacteria convert the added nitrite or nitrate to nitric oxide.
Sliced prosciutto crudo in Italian cuisine is often served as an antipasto, wrapped around grissini, or accompanied with melon. It is also eaten as accompaniment to cooked spring vegetables, such as asparagus or peas. It may be included in a simple pasta sauce made with cream, or a Tuscan dish of tagliatelle and vegetables. It is used in stuffings for other meats, such as veal, as a wrap around veal or steak, in a filled bread, or as a pizza topping.
Prosciutto is often served in sandwiches and panini, sometimes in a variation on the Caprese salad, with basil, tomato and fresh mozzarella. A basic sandwich served in some European cafes and bars consists of prosciutto in a croissant.
Culatello is a refined variety of prosciutto, made from heavier pigs, cut to a fraction of the normal prosciutto and aged, and may be cured with wine, with culatello di Zibello having PDO status. It is commonly served as a starter along with slices of sweet melon or fresh figs.
Under the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union (EU), certain well-established meat products, including some local prosciutto, are covered by a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) – D.O.P. in Italian – and other, less stringent designations of geographical origin for traditional specialties. Various regions have their own PDO, whose specifications do not in general require ham from free range pigs.
A complete list of agricultural products with an EU PDO, Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), or Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG), listed alphabetically by nation, is at the EU Agriculture site.
There are two famous types of Italian prosciutto crudo: prosciutto crudo di Parma, from Parma, and prosciutto crudo di San Daniele, from the San Daniele del Friuli area, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. The prosciutto di Parma has a slightly nutty flavour from the Parmigiano Reggiano whey that is sometimes added to the pigs' diet. The prosciutto di San Daniele, on the other hand, is darker in color and sweeter in flavour. For both of them, the product specifications completely prohibit additives such as nitrite and nitrate that are often present in non-protected products.
EU protected designations for prosciutto in Italy, each slightly different in color, flavour and texture, are:
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