Prosciutto di Parma

  • by Nonna Box October 23, 2022
  • |
  • Last Updated on October 25, 2022
prosciutto di parma ham

What is prosciutto di Parma ham?

Prosciutto di Parma ham is a world famous salt-cured air dried ham produced in the farming area surrounding the Italian city of Parma.

According to the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma website, this area has an age old tradition in the production of delicious, high-quality prosciutto di Parma ham since before Roman times. Even the name for prosciutto can be traced back to a Latin word perexsuctum, which means dried.

Where are the city of Parma and the region of Emilia Romagna located?

Parma is the second largest city in the Emilia Romagna region in Northern Italy, with a population of around 200,000. The city is home to one of the oldest universities in the world. The region Emilia Romagna is located to the north of Tuscany, to the east of Liguria and to the south of Lombardy and Veneto.

Besides having delicious prosciutto, Parma is also known for its production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and was named a UNESCO city of gastronomy for its important contribution to Italian and world cuisine with its high-quality specialty meat and food products. Other famous products from nearby are Balsamic vinegar from Modena and mortadella from Bologna.

DOP certification of Parma ham

Prosciutto di Parma is a prosciutto crudo (“raw” Italian salt-cured pork meat) that gained the Denominazione di Origine Protetta DOP status which translates to “Protected Designation of Origin” in English. This is a protected status for an agricultural food product that comes from a specific area or region, usually with an age old tradition passed down from past generations.

Prosciutto di Parma by law must be made in the hills surrounding Parma with its unique climate conditions. The area is delineated by being south of the Emilia Way road but not less than 5 km from it, and by the River Enza to the East and the Stirone stream to the west.

Only prosciutto meat that follows the guidelines, passes the final inspection and is made in this area around Parma can be considered prosciutto di Parma and be marked with the Ducal Crown.

The Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma was established in 1963 with a group of 23 initial producers from Parma interested in protecting the local tradition of making prosciutto in well ventilated rooms and with just sea salt and pork. The consortium now has over 150 Parma producers and has become one of the most important symbols of Made in Italy quality food products.

Prosciutto di Parma Ducal Crown

To receive the Parma Crown, which is the fire branded symbol that all prosciutto di Parma must have, the ham goes through a rigorous inspection process by an independent certifying body.

After the prosciutto di Parma has been aged for a minimum of 12 months to a maximum of 3 years, the prosciutto di Parma inspectors use a horse bone “needle” to insert into different parts of the ham to smell how the prosciutto is progressing and if the curing process is complete based on several olfactory markers.

If the prosciutto is deemed ready, it will be fire branded with the official Parma Crown mark and is then ready to be sold.

How is prosciutto di Parma ham made?

prosciuttos hanging to dry

Prosciutto di Parma ham producers in Italy use only four ingredients when making their air cured ham:

  • Leg of pork (hind legs only) from Italian pigs from authorized prosciutto di Parma pig slaughter houses, with an average weight of 15 kg per hind leg
  • Sea salt, carefully controlled by the maestro salatore
  • Lard from the same pigs
  • Parma air and time

Salt and air curing process steps to making Parma ham in food drying rooms:

salting of prosciutto
  1. First the pork legs arrive from the slaughter houses. The Parma ham legs are salted by a salt master (maestro salatore in Italian in charge of salting the meat). Some parts of the pig leg are salted with humid salt and others with dry salt. The legs are then hung in a humidity and temperature controlled room for a week.
  2. The pork legs receive another coating of just sea salt from the salt master and are left for an additional 15-18 days. No chemicals are allowed during this process and the salt is the only thing that preserves the meat to cure it.
  3. Now that the prosciutto hams have been salted, they will hang in temperature and humidity controlled rooms for another 60-90 days. After this initial phase, the prosciutto hams are washed, they are brushed to remove impurities and excess salt and then they are hung to dry in drying rooms for a few days.
  4. The Parma hams are now transferred to well ventilated rooms and hung on racks. The air is allowed to circulate freely from the outside, when the outside temperature and humidity is favorable, for about three months. This constant drying of the prosciutto di Parma gives it its distinct flavor and the outer layer hardens.
  5. In order to avoid the hams drying out or becoming too hard, the outside is rubbed with a lard and salt mixture.
  6. The prosciutto di Parma ham legs are transferred to aging cellars in the seventh month, where there is less air and light. They will be hung in the cellar until curing is completed.
  7. The final step, at no less than 1 year of aging from the beginning of the process, is the fire-branding with the Parma Crown/Ducal Crown to certify that the product conforms to the consortium quality standards.
lard coating of prosciutto

The history of making prosciutto di Parma ham

The age old tradition passed down from generation to generation since Roman times means that prosciutto di Parma is an Italian cultural icon. The dry cured ham comes from local pigs and a tradition of raising pigs for food in Italy goes back millennium.

The first mention of the air cured ham near Parma was made by Cato the “Censor” in 100 BC, when he mentioned the delicious flavor of the prosciutto di Parma ham legs that were salted, left to dry and greased with a little oil or lard and were able to be preserved for long periods of time without spoiling.

The Consorzio del prosciutto di Parma mentions on its website that even earlier, in Etruscan times, the area was known for trading dry cured hams with the rest of Italy and even Greece, which makes prosciutto di Parma ham a food tradition that dates back thousands of years.

An interesting fact is that the pigs raised in this area for making prosciutto di Parma ham are often fed the leftover whey from the production of local Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, giving the prosciutto di Parma ham a unique, slightly nutty flavor that is great cooked or uncooked.

How to eat and cook with thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma

Prosciutto di Parma ham is not as salty as other prosciutto crudo or salt cured meats, and is therefore sometimes considered sweet. There are so many ways to enjoy this delicious Italian food with a unique flavor.

The simplest way is sliced paper thin and served as a light snack alongside bread or crackers, with no cooking required at all. In fact, prosciutto di Parma ham is quite a star on mixed charcuterie platters alongside other hams or salt-cured meats like salami or mortadella or cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano or served with melon or figs.

The delicate flavor and great taste means that prosciutto di Parma ham can also be used in many recipes. Thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma ham is the perfect addition to an omelet, can be cut into tiny pieces and sprinkled on top of a creamy pasta dish, or makes the perfect stuffed panini bread filling with a slice of mozzarella cheese before grilling.

What to look for when buying prosciutto di Parma ham

Prosciutto di Parma ham should always proudly display the Parma Crown symbol on its outer skin. The color should be a light to medium pink meat with a bottom layer of white fat, which can be removed if desired before serving. The fat should never be oily, slimy or yellow. It should also have a delicate, sweet taste and not be overly salty.

Is prosciutto di San Daniele the same as prosciutto di Parma?

While both prosciutto di Parma and prosciutto di San Daniele are prosciutto crudo ham from Italy, the first is made in Emilia Romagna and the second in Fruili Venezia Giulia, two different regions about 4 hours away from each other although both in Northern Italy.

Both types of prosciutto have a limited amount of salting, so they are considered “dolce” or “sweet” but San Daniele has a different curing process that includes a pressing step that prosciutto di Parma ham does not have. Of course, the microclimates of both regions are very different, contributing to a different taste and flavor profile.

What is the nutritional profile of prosciutto di Parma ham?

The prosciutto di Parma ham with the Parma Crown/Ducal Crown guarantees a product that has exclusively Italian pork and sea salt to prevent spoilage. No other ingredient or preservative can be used in making prosciutto di Parma, so you will not find nitrates, nitrites, coloring or any other harmful substance in a slice of this delicate cured and salted meat with a sweet and salty flavor.

Prosciutto di Parma ham is high in protein, and has more unsaturated (good) fats than saturated fats. People who want to limit their fat intake in their cooking can also easily remove the white strip of fat before consuming the pork product. Prosciutto di Parma ham has vitamins B1, B6 and B12 and includes zinc, iron and selenium.

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