What Is Prosciutto and How Do You Use It?

Published on June 27, 2024 | 0 Comments
What is prosciutto

You often hear of it in Italian cuisine, but what is prosciutto? This Italian meat is often part of charcuterie trays, sold in delis and served on sandwiches. Others will enjoy it wrapped around a block of cheese to enjoy its unique and decadent taste. In many ways, it's unlike other deli meats, which leads many to wonder what exactly this food is. Prosciutto is a unique meat and has been around since before the Romans. Originating in Italy, people dry-aged meat to keep the supply throughout the winter. This technique was the precursor to how modern-day prosciutto is made.

So, exactly what is prosciutto? How is it made and how do you eat it? This guide will provide the answers to all the questions you have about this delicious Italian meat. By the end of it, you’ll have a better understanding and appreciation of prosciutto and be ready to try some for yourself.


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What Is Prosciutto Meat?

Before diving into tastes and textures, the first question most people have is “What is prosciutto?” In Italian, the word translates as “dried ham,” which is exactly what prosciutto is. The meat comes from the hind legs of a pig. It is dry-aged between 14 to 36 months in a temperature-controlled space. This is part of the curing process. The quality, appearance and flavor of prosciutto can vary depending on the curing process, the Italian region or place in which it’s cured and the overall recipe.

Prosciutto can range in color from a light pink to a deep reddish-brown. White marbling of fat is also apparent throughout the meat. The skin is removed before the meat is cut into paper-thin slices. Often, these slices are just 1/16th of an inch, making them translucent. This allows you to better enjoy the rich flavors as the fat simply melts in your mouth.

Prosciutto has a delicate flavor that balances salty and sweet. It has a buttery texture thanks to the fat content. Depending on the varieties, prosciutto can be made with herbs, like juniper, rosemary, pepper or garlic to provide unique flavors. How long the prosciutto ages can also affect the flavors, with longer aging processes producing deeper, fuller flavor profiles.

Prosciutto meat on top of a bed of leaves on a black serving board
via Canva

Is Proscuitto Raw?

Wondering if prosciutto is a raw meat? Technically, traditional prosciutto is considered raw because it is uncooked. However, prosciutto is not raw like other raw meats. The curing process prevents bacteria from entering the meat, making it safe to eat in its raw state. There is a cooked version of prosciutto called prosciutto cotto, which differs in terms of taste and how it’s prepared.

Pieces of prosciutto on a white plate, sitting on top of a cloth
via Canva

Is Prosciutto Pork?

What is prosciutto when referring to meat categories? Since it is made from the back legs of pigs, it is a form of pork. If you’re looking for an even more detailed answer to your question “What is prosciutto?” you may be interested to know that the meat comes from particular breeds of heavy pigs. Large White, Landrace and Duroc are the breeds that are traditionally used to make prosciutto. Breeds specified in the Italian Herd Book can also be used.

Close-up shot of pieces of prosciutto
via Canva

How Is Prosciutto Made?

Prosciutto goes through a unique process to result in delicious meat. So what is the prosciutto curing process? The process of curing meat involves cleaning the meat before thoroughly salting it. As previously stated, this protects the meat from bacteria and from going bad. After softening, the meat is placed in a temperature- and moisture-controlled room where the meat will age and cure over a few months. Once aged, the prosciutto is sliced and ready to be served.

Pieces of prosciutto on a wooden chopping board next to bread and a tomato
via Canva

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What Does Prosciutto Taste Like?

Prosciutto has a delicate flavor with a hint of sweetness and saltiness. The marbling of fat adds a buttery and creamy taste that coats your tongue. However, the flavor of prosciutto depends on the curing process. Longer curing time means flavors that are deeper and more complex. Taste can depend on the recipe, as some add a variety of herbs and spices for more flavor. The region in Italy where the prosciutto is made can also have an effect. Different regions can have different methods of preparing and curing the meat, which can result in unique flavors.

Top view of pieces of prosciutto with green leaves on a wooden chopping board
via Canva

What Are the Different Types of Prosciutto?

As stated, different regions of Italy can have various methods of curing, resulting in different types of prosciutto. Some of the most common types are prosciutto crudo, prosciutto di Parma and prosciutto di San Daniele. Prosciutto crudo is raw prosciutto in that it’s not cooked. This is a general term for all raw prosciutto. In most cases, if you see prosciutto, it would be prosciutto crudo.

Prosciutto di Parma means that the salting and aging process all took place in Italy’s Parma province. The climate of this province affects the flavor, making this meat more distinctive. Prosciutto di Parma is aged for a minimum of eight months, often up to two years. Another popular variant is prosciutto di San Daniele, which is made in the Friuli-Venezia region. The higher altitude of this climate makes the meat darker and sweeter. In this region, the ham is also pressed after salting, encouraging the salt to penetrate deeper.

Gnocco Fritto e Prosciutto Crudo showcasing
via Canva

What Is Prosciutto Cotto?

Raw prosciutto is referred to as crudo, but there is another variant called prosciutto cotto. So, what is prosciutto cotto? It’s cooked prosciutto, but it’s also a completely different product to the regular “crudo” variety. Prosciutto cotto has a lighter flavor than its counterpart. It also differs in color with a bright pink shade. Prosciutto cotto is cooked slowly by being steamed, boiled or baked for a couple of days. Herbs and sauces can also be added to the cooking process to give prosciutto cotto a distinct flavor. Because prosciutto cotto is a completely different product, on a menu it will be denoted as “cotto.”

Full portion of prosciutto cotto with slices next to it on a plate
via Canva

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Pancetta vs. Prosciutto

Another Italian meat you may have heard of is pancetta. But what is prosciutto when compared to pancetta and how do they differ? As stated, prosciutto comes from the hind legs of the pig and is salted and dry-aged. Pancetta, on the other hand, is a completely different cut of meat, coming from the pork belly. The meat is salted with added herbs and spices and then rolled tightly to cure over several weeks.

Pancetta is often used similarly to bacon in many recipes. However, pancetta’s flavor is milder than traditional bacon. Cuts are usually thicker slices or diced pieces compared to prosciutto. Pancetta is often used as an ingredient in pasta, such as carbonara, salads, soups and sandwiches. It adds a rich and savory flavor to all the dishes it’s added to.

Ham, prosciutto, pancetta and bacon slices on a board, next to grapes and pineapple
via Canva

How To Eat Prosciutto

Prosciutto can be eaten alone to enjoy the depth of flavors or be paired with other foods. Prosciutto wrapped around cantaloupe is a popular food in Italy. It's also a common feature of charcuterie boards, enjoyed alongside cheese, spreads and bread.

Prosciutto also works well in meals such as pasta and sandwiches. A prosciutto sandwich with vegetables and cheese would be perfect for lunch. Creamy and sweet flavors pair well with prosciutto, so a burrata salad topped with prosciutto would be ideal since the flavors of figs and sweet vinaigrette complement each other well.

This meat can also work as an ingredient in more savory dishes. Added to squid ink pasta, prosciutto can add a delightful texture, especially when made crispy, and a subtle hint of elevated flavor. Finally, add a dash of savory to your pizza by using prosciutto as a topping and baking it so it gets a little crispy.

Prosciutto and arugula pizza
via Canva

How To Serve Prosciutto

Prosciutto is best served in thin slices. In most cases, prosciutto comes pre-sliced, so you won’t have to worry about cutting the meat yourself. However, if you do buy a lump of uncut meat, try slicing it as thin as possible. When serving on a charcuterie board, you can roll up the individual slices and place the meat on the board. Mild and sweet fruits like figs and melons pair well with prosciutto, so those are great options. As for cheese, mozzarella, provolone and Parmesan are the best pairings. Mozzarella is creamy, which will complement the texture of prosciutto perfectly. Provolone’s mild flavor works well with prosciutto flavors and Parmesan offers delightful contrast on the palate.

Top-view of a prosciutto and cheeseboard
via Canva

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Is Prosciutto Healthy?

You may know the answer to the question, "What is prosciutto?" but is it considered to be healthy? Compared to other meats, prosciutto can be considered healthy. This cut of meat is rich in protein and low in carbohydrates and saturated fats, perfect if you're looking for keto lunch ideas. Prosciutto also has fewer calories, so it can be a better option if you’re looking for a healthier meat option. However, prosciutto should still be enjoyed in moderation as it can be high in sodium.

Salad with dried prosciutto and grilled nectarine showcasing
via Canva

Where To Buy Prosciutto

Though a lot of prosciutto is made in Italy, you can find it pretty easily in America and many other countries. Many prosciutto bands are sold in major grocery store chains like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Costo and Kroger. It's usually found in the deli department of grocery stores, pre-packaged or cut fresh. Italian grocery stores are also likely to stock prosciutto.

Packaged prosciutto on a gray stone table in between spices and herbs
via Canva

How To Store Prosciutto

Sliced prosciutto should be placed in an air-tight container and placed in the coldest part of the fridge. This will prevent the edges from getting dry. Full pieces of prosciutto can be stored in the fridge or the freezer. Unopened packages of prosciutto can remain fresh for a few months if they’re refrigerated. However, if the package is open, keep it in the fridge and try to eat it between three and five days after opening.

Prosciutto slices next to greens on a wooden chopping board
via Canva

Prosciutto is a delicious cut of meat that has a rich history and unique flavor. Many people wonder what prosciutto is, especially if they’ve only heard of it but never had it before. Made with time-honored techniques and a rigorous curing process, prosciutto is one of the most delicious kinds of meats you can eat. Prosciutto is also incredibly versatile, pairing with sweet and savory dishes for everything from a snack to a full-course meal.

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