How to Make Prosciutto: The Curing Process
Ever wonder how to make prosciutto? Or, why making Prosciutto di Parma is different than other types of prosciutto?
Where is Prosciutto di Parma from?
- Emilia Romagna is one of the differentiating factors that set Prosciutto di Parma apart from all other hams. The rolling hills around Parma create an ideal environment that includes the Apennine Mountains, which offer crisp breezes that flow from the Adriatic Sea and a distinct microclimate that gives Parma Ham its uniquely sweet flavor. Learn more about the region by planning a trip to an Italian prosciuttificio.
How are the pigs raised?
- From the moment they are born, each pig is monitored, inspected and traced to ensure that high standards are being upheld and adhered to.
- The pigs are not given any hormones, and antibiotics are only given on a limited, as-needed basis to remedy any sickness. In addition, the pigs are left free to roam the farms.
- Each piglet receives a breeder tattoo indicating the farm on which it was raised within the first 30 days of its life. That tattoo is also on the final product that receives the Parma Crown.
What are the pigs fed?
- The pigs are fed a healthy diet, which may include the whey from the Parmigiano Reggiano production, another culinary specialty from the Emilia Romagna region.
Step One: Tagging
Once the legs reach the prosciuttificio (processing plant), each ham is tagged with a button, indicating the date it began curing.
Step Two: Salting
Next, salting is completed by hand in the traditional manner, by the maestro salatore, or salt master, who uses only the minimal amount of sea salt necessary. This makes Prosciutto di Parma taste less salty than other cured hams. In Parma, the only “ingredients” added to the pork during production are the highest quality Italian sea salt, air and time.
The leg is then refrigerated at a temperature ranging from 34°F to 39°F, with a humidity level of approximately 80% for about a week and gets a second thin coating of salt which is left on another 15 to 18 days, depending on the weight of the leg. Salt is the only preservative used in the processing method; no chemical elements are allowed.
Step Three: Resting + Salt Absorption
Next, the hams hang for a period ranging between 60 and 90 days in refrigerated, humidity-controlled rooms, to ensure the sea salt properly absorbs into the meat.
Step Four: Washing
The hams are then washed with warm water and brushed to remove excess salt and impurities, then hung in drying rooms for a few days.
Step Five: Initial Curing
Now the hams are hung on frames in well ventilated rooms with large windows that are opened when the outside temperature and humidity are favorable; this allows for a constant and gradual drying of the hams. Connoisseurs believe that this period is critical to the development of Prosciutto di Parma’s distinctive flavour. By the end of this phase, which lasts about three months, the exposed surface of the meat has dried and hardened.
Step Six: Lard Layering
The exposed surfaces of the hams are then softened with a mixture of lard, salt and pepper to prevent the external layers from drying too quickly.
Step Seven: Final Curing
In the seventh month, the ham is transferred to the “cellars,” rooms with less air and light, and hang on racks until the curing is completed. By law Prosciutto di Parma is cured at least 400 days (starting from date of first salting), and some may be cured as long as 3 years.
Step Eight: Prosciutto Inspection
After that time has passed, an independent inspector pierces the ham in several locations with a horse bone needle, sniffing it after each puncture to check for scents that may indicate any flaws or spoilage.
Fun Fact: A horse bone is used to test the hams because it absorbs and releases scents quickly, which helps the inspector tell if there’s any spoilage, but lets him use it again for the next ham.
Step Nine: Parma Crown Branding
Assuming the ham passes the test, the independent inspector brands the five-point Ducal Crown on the leg, which acts as the final guarantee of the quality of the ham. The Ducal Crown also shows the identification code of the producer.
Only hams that meet the Consorzio’s high standards become Prosciutto di Parma and are fire-branded with the Parma Crown.