Growing up in NJ, my introduction to prosciutto was early. It was the thing on the plate with the canteloupe melon before a meal. When traveling in Italy, though, I started to ask questions. What is Parma ham? What makes Prosciutto di Parma so special. And, how do they make Parma ham?
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Emilia Romagna, Italy, And Prosciutto
When I started traveling to Italy, I always wondered how they make Parma Ham (and mortadella too!). When I walked around any small town in Italy, I always saw large legs of ham hanging from the ceiling.
More often than not, they were stamped with a crown-shaped marking that bears a single word: “Parma.” But how did they get there? I always wondered what the steps are to making Parma ham.
After 20+ years of traveling to Italy and learning about the cuisine of Emilia Romagna – where Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di Modena are from – I figured it out. I learned all about the process while researching my book, The Food Traveler’s Guide To Emilia Romagna: How to taste the history and tradition of Italy.
Not only have we experienced guided tastings of prosciutto, but we’ve visited several artisan producers over the years to learn about the process to make Italy’s famous ham from the masters.
The History Of Prosciutto Di Parma
Prosciutto di Parma, or more generally, Parma ham, has been around since Roman times. There are stories from 100 BC referencing the unique flavor of the air-dried pork from the area surrounding Parma. At the time, they dried pork to extend its life and prevent it from spoiling.
A group of Parma ham producers created a Consortium, Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, in the 1970s, to control the quality of prosciutto. In 1996, the European Union gave the DOP designation on Prosciutto di Parma. It is one of the most famous foods in Italy.
Like all DOP and IGP products, the Consortium regulates the types of pigs that can be used, what the pigs are fed, and how the ham itself is produced. They regulate all of the steps in making prosciutto and every aspect of this particular Parma food product.
How to Make Italian Prosciutto – The Ingredients
How is Parma ham made? What is Parma ham made of? The Prosciutto di Parma Consortium likes to say there are only four ingredients in prosciutto: Italian pigs, salt, air, and time. In reality, it’s really only two ingredients. Although air and time are also key components.
They make Parma Ham by curing a leg of pork with nothing but sea salt. This increases the tenderness of the meat and gives it a characteristic sweet flavor. Salt is the key ingredient in how to make Prosciutto di Parma.
The Salt Master
A maestro salatore, or salt master, controls the production process, which has to be the coolest sounding title for a ham maker. After receiving the hind legs of the pig, the salt master thoroughly covers, and to some extent massages, the legs of ham with massive amounts of sea salt. Over the next few weeks, they hang the legs in refrigerated rooms, or drying rooms. The maestro salatore will clean and re-salt the hams as they cure and age.
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How Is Prosciutto Aged?
This is one of the most interesting parts of how to make prosciutto ham. Over the next 3 months, every leg of Parma Ham is hung in large, well-ventilated rooms, with windows at the end. This allows each leg of ham to be exposed to the climate of Parma, and the air: the fourth “ingredient” in Parma Ham.
Similar to the Parmigiano Reggiano aging rooms, the smell is intoxicating. Often, they hang the legs in rows a half a dozen hams high, and dozens of hams long. Parma Ham legs as far as the eye can see. When we visited a prosciutto aging room for the first time, Eric was, literally, in hog heaven!
As the months wear on, the meat of the Parma ham leg starts to change color. Whereas initially, the hams are bright pink, soft, and tender, the meat darkens, dries, and ultimately hardens.
The Parma Ham Consortium dictates that Parma ham must be cured at least one year, which is timed from the date of the first salting—although it’s possible to have Prosciutto di Parma aged for as long as 3 years or more.
What Is the Parma Ham Crown?
After aging it’s time to determine whether the ham receives the Parma Ham Crown. This is the official label of quality. When ready, an inspector from the Consortium arrives to test each and every leg of prosciutto.
The inspector pierces the leg at five specific points with a thin horse bone needle, smelling the bone after each time it is removed from the ham. By smelling the meat, with a highly trained nose, it’s possible to confirm the quality of the ham.
It is only after the leg passes inspection, and is fire-branded with the signature five-point crown, that the ham officially becomes Prosciutto di Parma. The Parma Ham crown is how you know you are purchasing ham that is of high quality.
So, how is prosciutto made? It’s all a fascinating process, and it is understandable why Prosciutto di Parma has the reputation it does around the world.
Eating Parma Ham
Let’s face it, there’s no wrong way to eat Parma Ham. One of our tips for Italy travel is to eat Parma ham, and eat a lot of it!
Some may disagree and that’s ok. But after nine years of traveling the world for food, we’ve learned if it makes you happy then do it. And this applies to eating food. Enjoying Parma Ham on its own is more than enough for us. Throw in a few slices of melon and YUM!
If you are traveling to Italy, enjoying an aperitivo is a must. Similar to a happy hour, an aperitivo is enjoyed after work, before dinner. Many bars around Italy will include a light snack, many times free of charge when you purchase a glass of wine or Aperol Spritz. These famous Italian snacks usually consist of cheese, bread, and of course, prosciutto.
A Unique Prosciutto Experience
One particular prosciutto experience is worth mentioning. Hostaria da Ivan is a small restaurant just outside of the city of Parma. With a dining room overlooking a small garden, the menu specializes in local, seasonal cuisine, including roasted meats and potatoes. They also offer some more innovative versions of local dishes.
Hostaria da Ivan is known in Parma for offering the world’s first Salumi Therapy, which focuses on the ritual of the salumi. The owner, Ivan, is a character in his own right. He walks through a proper tasting of Prosciutto and other cured meats.
Get more recommendations on where to eat in Parma in our Parma Food Guide.
FAQs – Italian Prosciutto di Parma
Although it is possible to cured meats at home, in a dark cellar, for example, it’s not possible to make “Prosciutto di Parma” at home. There are a lot of particulars about how Parma ham is made and the most important is the location. As much as Parma ham ingredients are pretty simple, the most important is time spent aging in the air of the Po River, and that you just can’t do at home.
The easiest way is to book a Parma Ham Tour and Tasting. These tours often include a visit to a Parmigiano Reggiano producer too, which is well worth it. Check out this combined gourmet Parma food tour.
Let’s talk about the difference between Parma Ham and prosciutto. Parma Ham is the more well-known and less formal way to say Prosciutto di Parma. Prosciutto, though, is made in many areas of Italy and would be named something different. The Parma Ham process is similar in these other areas of Italy, but are named locally, like Prosciutto di Modena or Prosciutto di San Daniele.
This is one of the most common questions about Prosciutto di Parma. The answer is complicated. Technically, Parma ham is raw because it is not cooked. But it is not raw like raw chicken or beef in carpaccio. The pork is cured with salt and dried, which means it is not dangerous to eat like raw pork.
Although Parma Ham is not cooked Prosciutto di Parma is ready to eat. The salting and curing process makes it completely safe to eat. There is no reason to cook Parma Ham before eating it, although it can be added to pizza or stuffed into a pasta. It can also be added to salads, and yes served with melon. Or, try serving Parma Ham with figs drizzled with balsamic vinegar.
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Check out Food & Drink Destinations original founder Amber Hoffman’s book, the Food Traveler’s Guide To Emilia Romagna, which is available on Amazon. In addition to being a culinary travel guide to the region, it walks through how many of the typical Italian food products are made, like mortadella, prosciutto, and Parmigiano Reggiano.