Prosciutto is the Italian word for “ham,” although most consumers outside of Italy associate this word with a specific type of cure for ham. To make it, the ham is salted and then air dried for a period of up to two years. After curing, it's sliced into paper thin pieces, which are usually slightly transparent. It is typically eaten uncooked, on charcuterie plates, wrapped around fruit and vegetables, or in salads. In some cases, prosciutto may be lightly cooked, as is the case when it is tossed with pasta.
Within Italy, the term is generic for a specific cut of meat. The food that non-Italians associate with this name is formally called prosciutto crudo, or “raw ham,” because it is never actually cooked during the curing process. Prosciutto cotto, “cooked ham,” is similar to the dish that non-Italians think of as regular ham. Different hams are also individually identified by processor and origin, and some regions of Italy have a Protected Designation of Origin, as is the case with Parma. In order to be labeled “Parma ham,” the meat must be processed in a certain way, using the flesh of pigs fed from the curds and whey left over after making Parma cheese — Parmesan.
To make prosciutto, high quality cuts of meat are selected and allowed to drain in a cool place for approximately 24 hours. After resting, the meat is washed and trimmed. Next, the meat is rubbed with sea salt and, in some regions, additional spices. The salted meat sits for up to two months, being periodically re-rubbed and turned. After salt-curing, the meat is washed to remove the salt, and hung in a cool breezy place to cure. A brief cure may last only a few months, but traditional products are cured for up to two years.
The wind-dried ham becomes completely dry while it cures, developing a rich and complex flavor. Care must be taken while curing the meat to ensure that it does not rot or become damaged, although small amounts of mold may appear on the surface. After curing, the ham is kept whole until sale, since it becomes perishable once it is sliced. Some producers slice prosciutto and roll it. This style of ham originally arose as a way to cure meat without refrigeration, but many Italians developed a taste for the meat, ensuring that the traditional technique would be retained.