In Italy, Prosciutto simply refers to ham without regard to the type of which there are basically two: prosciutto cotto, or cooked prosciutto, which is similar to the cooked hams found in American delicatessens; and prosciutto crudo, or raw prosciutto, which is dry-cured and served sliced razor thin. Prosciutto crudo is what we in the United States usually think of when we hear “Prosciutto”.
The best, most famous and most expensive Prosciutto crudo come from central and northern Italy where in Emilia-Romagna you find Prosciutto di Parma, and in Friuli-Venezia Giulia you find Prosciutto di San Danielle. Prosciutto di Parma has a slightly nutty flavor derived from the whey, discarded from the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, that is often added to the pig’s diet. Alternatively, Prosciutto di San Daniele is darker in color and sweeter in flavor. For both, additives such as nitrites are completely prohibited.
Prosciutto is made from the hind leg and thigh of a pig, and the process of making prosciutto can take anywhere from 9 months to 3 years. To produce Prosciutto di Parma for example, the leg is first salted where the skin is typically covered with moist sea salt, and the meaty parts are covered with dry salt. The prosciutto is then refrigerated and after about a week it gets a second thin coating of salt, which is left on another 15 to 18 days depending on weight.
Next, the prosciutto hangs for 70 days in a refrigerated, humidity-controlled room after which it is washed with warm water and brushed to remove excess salt and other impurities; it is then hung in drying a room for a few days.
At this point the prosciutto is hung on a frame in a well-ventilated room with large windows. These windows are opened when the outside temperature and humidity are favorable allowing for a gradual drying of the prosciutto. This period is considered critical to the development of Prosciutto di Parma’s distinctive flavor. After about 3 months, the exposed surface of the prosciutto has dried and hardened and is now softened by rubbing with a paste of minced lard and salt in order to prevent the outer layers from drying too rapidly.
At seven months, the prosciutto is moved to the “cellar”, a room with less air and light, to hang on a rack until the curing is completed. By law, Prosciutto di Parma is cured for at least 1 year starting from the date of first salting, and some may be cured as long as 3 years.
To be sure we are getting the finest Prosciutto available, Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele are designated D.O.P, Denominazione Origine Protetta, or Protected Designation of Origin. This is a trademark of legal protection accorded by Italy and the European Union to food products whose particular characteristics depend essentially or exclusively on the territory in which they are produced. This includes both natural factors such as climate and environmental characteristics; as well as human factors such as production techniques passed down over time and craftsmanship. These factors when combined allow to obtain a distinctive product specific to an area. In order for a product to obtain D.O.P. designation, the stages of production, processing and preparation must take place in a specifically designated, geographically bound area following strict production rules. Compliance with these rules is guaranteed by a specific monitoring organization for example the Consorzio del Prosciutto di San Daniele which guarantees the production of Prosciutto di San Daniele. Other less popular but never the less wonderful prosciutti (plural for prosciutto) with D.O.P designation include: Prosciutto di Modena, Prosciutto Toscano, Prosciutto Veneto Berico-Euganeo and Prosciutto di Carpegna.
In Italian cuisine, prosciutto is used in many different ways. Sliced, It is often served as part of an antipasto along with various cheeses, other cured meats and marinated vegetable; or perhaps wrapped around grissini or melon. A popular sandwich is Panino Caprese, which includes prosciuto, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella di bufala and basil as a play on the Caprese salad. Prosciutto may also be included in pasta sauces, for example Ragù Bolognese. It is used in stuffings for other meats such as Brasciole, and in filled pastas such as ravioli or tortellini; or as a pizza topping. Saltimbocca is an Italian veal dish where veal scallops are topped with sage wrapped in prosciutto and then pan-fried in oil and butter.
I like to use prosciutto to make what I call Panino di Prosciutto e Caprese al Mattone. I use Prosciutto di Parma, fresh made mozzarella from our favorite Italian deli, farm fresh tomatoes, fresh basil from our herb garden and pane casereccio (round home style Italian bread) from Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. To make the sandwich, I use the big slices of bread from the middle of the round pane casereccio. I layer the prosciutto, basil, tomatoes and mozzarella on the bottom slice and gave it a small drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Then I pour some olive oil on a plate and dip the top slice so the there’s a light coating of olive oil on all of the outer side and place it on the panino. I then place the panino on a ribbed grill or grill pan oiled side down, and dip the other slice of bread in the olive oil and replace it on the panino. Now comes the “al Mattone” part. I don’t own a panini press for two reasons; first I’m probably to cheap, secondly because I really don’t need another “appliance” cluttering the kitchen. So, I use a “mattone”, a standard 4-pound brick. I cover the brick with aluminum foil and place it on the panino. Grill the first side, flip and grill the second side. Works great, try it!
Panino di Prosciutto e Caprese al Mattone
- Prosciutto, which style and amount is up to you
- Fresh mozzarella, sliced, to taste
- Fresh tomatoes, sliced, to taste
- Fresh basil leaves, to taste
- Olive oil, to taste
- Italian bread, use sliced pane casereccio (Italian round home style bread), sliced ciabatta or individual ciabatta.
- Layer the prosciutto, basil, tomatoes and mozzarella on the bottom slice and gave it a small drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
- Pour some olive oil on a plate and dip the top slice so the there’s a light coating of olive oil on all of the outer side and place it on the panini.
- Place the panini on a ribbed grill or grill pan oiled side down, and then dip the other slice of bread in the olive oil and replace it on the panino.
- Grill using a panini press. If you don’t own a panini press use a “mattone”, a standard 4-pound brick and a ribbed grill or grill pan. Cover the brick with aluminum foil and place it on the panini; grill the first side, flip and grill the second side.
Image: Prosciutto Panini © Joe Chang is used under the Creative Commons NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)