I hope you've had the pleasure of eating prosciutto. Of course, I’m referring to the delicious Italian ham which comes from different parts of Italy in various forms. I see it more and more in restaurants and grocery stores throughout Chicago, but I’ve also noticed that it is far easier to order prosciutto at a restaurant than to get the right product at the grocery store. It’s understandable, because this meat is not as ingrained in American culture as it is in Italian culture. Not to worry! I can share what I’ve learned after living in Italy and becoming part of a proud Parma family to help you get the best prosciutto to your table.
People gather outside the windows of La Prosciutteria, a famous store for cured meats and prepared foods in downtown Parma, Italy.
Let’s say you are planning to make a recipe that calls for prosciutto, maybe a pizza with prosciutto and arugula or an appetizer of prosciutto-wrapped asparagus. You arrive at the grocery store, armed with your ingredient list and ready to buy that prosciutto… only to find that there are numerous options and the person behind the deli counter is not exactly knowledgeable about this product. (I once asked for prosciutto cotto at my local deli counter. The store employee told me that they did not carry prosciutto cotto, but I could buy prosciutto crudo and bake it in the oven for a few minutes to make prosciutto cotto. Not true! The curing and cooking processes produce entirely different results. )
So, what do you do? Allow me to demystify this meat.
Prosciutto crudo on display
First and foremost, prosciutto should be from Italy. The most famous prosciutto-producing towns are Parma and San Daniele. There is a governing body which regulates prosciutto from Italy, guaranteeing a level of quality based on the pig’s diet and the treatment of the meat. This will be indicated on the packaging as “DOP” (similar to DOC or DOCG for wine). If it is guaranteed by the Consorzio di Parma, the leg will be stamped with the crown symbol below. Look for these symbols of quality when buying prosciutto. Anything made outside of Italy is not the real deal.
There are two types of prosciutto:
- Prosciutto crudo, which is a cured ham hind leg, and
- Prosciutto cotto, which is a cooked ham hind leg.
Both are delicious, and both are eaten in very thin slices, but their flavors and textures are quite different. Prosciutto crudo should be deep pink (not brown!) with white ribbons of fat. It should smell sweet. Prosciutto cotto should be pale pink and fairly homogeneous in texture (i.e., no large ribbons of fat). It is similar to the classic American deli ham. Both prosciutto crudo and cotto are great in sandwiches, on top of pizza, or simply eaten alone.
Prosciutto can be sold already sliced and packaged, but in general, I have found prepackaged prosciutto to be quite dry and tough. It should be soft! So soft that it almost melts in your mouth. Therefore, I prefer to get mine freshly sliced from the deli counter. When ordering prosciutto crudo at the deli counter, the thin layer of skin needs to be removed before slicing. If not, you will have a tough ring of skin around each piece of prosciutto.
A leg of prosciutto crudo, with the skin properly removed from the front half and ready to be sliced.
A slice of prosciutto crudo needs to be paper thin, so thin that you can almost see through it. Each slice should be laid out flat with a piece of parchment paper between each slice to keep them separated until ready to serve. (I once received a balled up wad of prosciutto crudo from my local deli counter!)
I have found that I need to request “no skin, as thin as possible please!” every time I order prosciutto crudo at my local grocery store. Until prosciutto becomes a household staple in America, we need to go to the store armed with knowledge!
Now that you are ready to purchase prosciutto, try working with prosciutto at home, by making a simple cheese plate or trying one of our favorite pizza recipes from The Chopping Block. Also consider joining us for Chef Lisa Count’s Italian Cicchetti Dinner on Tuesday, April 25th at the Merchandise Mart, which will feature arancini with prosciutto crudo. It's the next in our series of Chef Dinners.