In medieval times, the legendary salt-cured hams of the Italian peninsula—such as the sweetly bold Prosciutto di Parma in Emilia-Romagna and the milder and faintly floral Prosciutto di San Daniele from Friuli—rose to become icons of regional prestige. While the terrain and climate, pig breeds and feeding, and diverse local techniques all contributed to the unique character of each ham, the qualities of the salt was no less a factor.
The essential ingredients for prosciutto are pork and salt. The great prosciuttos were as much testaments to their regions’ salts as to curing expertise and animal husbandry. It was salt and its properties that made a subtle but crucial difference in the texture and flavor of the finished ham.
The tidal wetlands of Cervia provided a mineral-sweet salt to the butchers of Parma, and the salt fields of Venice, among others, served Friuli. Prosciutto is now mostly made with salt from Trapani, far to the south. The lush flavor of the traditional Cervia salt has been swapped for a clear but faintly hot salt with no cultural or culinary connection to the original recipes. But you can still taste the near-maddening sweetness of a good Cervia salt-cured prosciutto in the regional charcuterie shops of central and northern Italy.
Prosciutto is a dry cured ham. It is usually served uncooked and cut into thin slices, known as prosciutto crudo. Cured ham that has been cooked is known as prosciutto cotto. It is similar to the Spanish jamón serrano, Portuguese presunto, or French Jambon de Bayonne.
A ham is made from a pig’s hind leg and thigh. After cleaning the leg, salt is applied. There is “wet” salt that covers part of the meat to keep it moist, while the rest of the leg is coated in “dry” salt. The leg is heavily salted this way and left to cure in a refrigerated environment. Traditional prosciuttos are made with just sea salt, but some producers now use curing salts as well. After about a week of curing, the salt is removed and a second, lighter coat is added and the aging continues. Through out the curing process, the legs are massaged to remove any blood remaining in the meat.
About two weeks after the second salting, the salt is washed off several times and the hams are hung at room temperature in a dark, dry room. Air circulation is important at this stage to maintain the room’s dryness and sweep away evaporating moisture.
After drying (about six months, depending on the size), rendered pork fat (sunga) is spread over the exposed meat of the ham that’s not already covered in fat. The ham is then re-hung to age and mature for around a year (exact aging time depends on the size of the ham). After that, the prosciutto is ready for eating.