What is Prosciutto?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Sliced prosciutto.
Sliced prosciutto.

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.

Curing prosciutto leg.
Curing prosciutto leg.

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.

Classic antipasto platter including sliced prosciutto and salami along with olives and assorted varieties of cheese.
Classic antipasto platter including sliced prosciutto and salami along with olives and assorted varieties of cheese.

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.

Parmesan is a hard, aged cheese used in many dishes.
Parmesan is a hard, aged cheese used in many dishes.
Some parts of Italy, such as Parma, have a Protected Designation of Origin to certify that ham has come from that region and been processed in a certain way.
Some parts of Italy, such as Parma, have a Protected Designation of Origin to certify that ham has come from that region and been processed in a certain way.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Can anyone tell me the best way to select the ham to cure on my own?


How would you cook prosciutto in a pasta dish? Would it be very salty? How much would you use?


all right people, learn your hams! No, prosciutto and jamon are not made the same way and they don't taste the same. Buying real 5Js ham in the USA is almost impossible, since the slaughter houses are not FDA approved. If you are ever in Spain, try real jamon. You will notice a clear difference from prosciutto. The color, texture and flavor are completely different. The taste of prosciutto is milder, and the prosciutto pigs eat a variety of things, whereas real 5j jamon only eat acorns and are cured for a longer amount of time than the prosciutto.

Once you try this jamon you will never want to eat another type of ham. Yes, it is pricier than prosciutto, but think of it like kobe beef vs any other beef. The care that goes into making Jamon shows in the end product. Hopefully, they won't be FDA approved anytime soon, since growing production would lower the quality of this very special meat. so if you are ever in spain, head over to a tapas bar and ask for their best Jamon, acorn fed 5Js mmmm.


"As bad as Virginia hams?" You've got to be kidding, anon. Virginia ham is just a place -- not a specific means of production. They're good animals; the rest is all up to the process used.

It's like comparing barbecued steak to Argentine beef -- one's a type of prep, and the other a place where good animals are raised.


it is so salty and very overrated -- as bad as some virgina hams.


Why do i break out in a rash and itch all over after eating this ham?


Prosciutto comes from the leg of the pig. And it's cut extremely thin because it costs anywhere between $16-35 LB. If it's your first time trying it go for the imported. It's more money but it's much better than domestic. Eat it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar with fresh Mozzarella on fresh italian bread. Eating it would be like god came down and blessed your pallet with goodness.


Traditionally, in Mediterranean countries the pigs would be slaughtered in November to provide enough meat for the family for winter.

Obviously there had to be a method to preserve some of the meat, and since there was no refrigeration it was preserved with salt and curing.

Hind legs of the pig were salted and dried in the cool, windy air. That is how prosciutto was and still is made. Prosciutto that has been well dried is as delicious as can be, but it has to be dry, unlike bacon. These days you can buy it in any upscale deli or market.


where can i find it in a local store?


can anyone tell me what area of the animal prosciutto comes from?


What is the preferred room temperature & humidity for curing the Prosciutto?


quite clear and answered my question. thank you


As a southerner in Seattle - discovered domestic prosciutto as 'country ham'. Have the deli slice it 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick and fry for 4 minutes.


Prosciutto and Jamon serrano seem to be made exactly the same way...is origin the only difference between the two?


Great explanation! Easy to read as well.


How perishable is prosciutto after it is sliced? Normal deli rules? Or longer, since it is cured in such a intricate way?

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