Soft and supple, with a pleasant saltiness and just enough fat to melt delicately on the tongue, a thin slice of Prosciutto di Parma is an exquisite experience. The artisanal product can be found in many grocery stores, but knowing a few pointers when it comes to buying, storing and serving it can make a world of difference.
The History of Prosciutto di Parma
This storied ham has a long history as a treasured ingredient enjoyed both within Italy’s borders and around the world, with a production method that can be dated back as early as 100 BC, when it was praised by Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato. The traditional process used for thousands of years incorporating salt, air and time is still largely followed by producers of Prosciutto di Parma today.
As with many foods made in Italy, terroir is especially important — so much so that Prosciutto di Parma, as well as prosciutto made in regions such as San Daniele and Toscano, is registered under a European Union protected designation of origin (PDO). These strict rules are upheld by the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, a group of 140 producers, and the product is traced from breeder to final inspection.
A Peek at Prosciutto Production
According to these rules, Prosciutto di Parma must be produced within the confines of the Parma region using specific breeds of heavy pigs and cured for at least 400 days from the date of first salting (a process that can go as long as three years). As the salt draws out moisture, the meat is tenderized and flavours are intensified. Hams are then tested in five places before being stamped with a crown signifying its origin.
What to Look For At the Grocery Store
When purchasing prosciutto, there are a few ways to ensure that you’re getting exactly what you want.
Guarantees of Authenticity
Whether you’re shopping for freshly sliced or pre-packaged prosciutto, there are signs you can look for that guarantee its authenticity. Prosciutto di Parma, for example, has a fire-brand of a five-pointed Ducal Crown on the skin which is always visible when displayed in the deli counter. On pre-sliced packs, look for the Ducal Crown within a black triangle, which is the packaging equivalent to the fire-brand.
Fat and Condition of the Meat
The fat on a piece of Prosciutto di Parma should be pure white, not yellow. It’s ok to see small white crystals, which are the tyrosine, an amino acid that comes from the breakdown of naturally occurring proteins in the prosciutto.
If you’re buying at the deli counter, you can ask for different thicknesses, depending on your planned use for the prosciutto. If you’re wrapping it around another ingredient, especially to cook, you may want a slightly thicker slice. For enjoying on its own, Prosciutto di Parma is best cut in paper thin or translucent slices. Ask the person cutting the piece to show you a test slice before proceeding with your order (typically sold by weight) and ask for a taste to see which producer you like best. Also, it’s best to leave the slicing to the professionals with a meat slicer, due to the difficulty of achieving a properly thin cut with a knife at home.
How to Store your Prosciutto
Make sure that you store it correctly to preserve the quality of the product. Freshly sliced Prosciutto di Parma from the deli counter is best eaten the day of purchase for the maximum effect, but can be stored tightly wrapped in the refrigerator to avoid oxidation.
A whole piece in a vacuum pack can be stored unopened at 8°C for up to six months, but once the packaging and meat are cut, that time shrinks to one month (be sure to tightly wrap the exposed end with plastic wrap). Pre-sliced prosciutto sold in packs should be enjoyed within three days, and kept well wrapped in the refrigerator.
Finding the Perfect Pairing for Prosciutto di Parma
With its balance of soft saltiness and nutty sweetness, Prosciutto di Parma pairs well with a large variety of ingredients and applications from brunch to dinner.
Although many people think of prosciutto as the star of a charcuterie board laden with cheese, fruit and nuts, it’s also a great supporting player in main course entrees to add flavour to cooked dishes, or as a complementary flavour to meat, seafood or produce. Try adding it to your favourite pasta dish or using it with celery, carrots and onion to build a better soffrito. When Prosciutto di Parma is crisped, it can also add lovely flavour to vegetables such as Brussels sprouts or green beans.
Get the recipe for Aglio e Olio with Peas and Prosciutto.
Fruit and Vegetables
From the traditional melon and figs to more unusual options, the mildness of prosciutto pairs nicely with your favourite seasonal fruit or vegetables, such as fresh spring peas or summer corn, autumn cranberries or winter pears. Try using Prosciutto di Parma to wrap spiced plums or gooey grilled brie with pineapple for a playful twist. For cold applications, prosciutto should be brought to room temperature for the best texture.
Get the recipe for Prosciutto-Wrapped Grilled Brie with Pineapple.
With a Drink
Prosciutto di Parma’s slight sweetness pairs extremely well with a variety of beverages, especially ones like an Aperol Spritz that have good acidity and fizziness to counter the rich mouthfeel of the fatty layer. For other Italian-inspired drink pairings, try the soft bubbles of a Lambrusco, your favourite Prosecco, or a lighter Italian Pilsner or Ale (for non-drinkers, a tonic water would achieve the same palate cleansing effect).
Get the recipe for a Thyme-Infused Aperol Spritz.