Sometimes my cravings are embarrassingly simple. It might be fresh, juicy fruit. Or it's delightfully messy sloppy joes. But tonight I found myself yearning for prosciutto. No, not those gummy, questionably shiny strips of pork you get vacuum-sealed at your local supermarket. I'm talking about dry, aged, smooth, pliable yet crumbly real prosciutto straight from Italy... or at the very least, cured Italian-style here in America.
To satisfy my craving I headed to my nearby Whole Foods, determined to get the best meat available. I went straight to the butcher - who I mentally high-fived for being an awesome, tiny chick working an industrial-sized deli slicer - and asked for an ounce each of their three available prosciuttos: Prosciutto Creminelli, La Quercia Prosciutto and Ferrari Prosciutto. Yup, that's in order of price. And yup, of course, the expensive meat is dubbed "Ferrari."
With my prosciutto slices delicately tucked into my shopping bag, I grabbed a loaf of crusty French bread and an Asian pear for dessert (because I figured the juicy brightness would be a complementary treat and because it's good to occasionally treat yo self.) When I got home I excitedly unwrapped my meat, sliced up my bread, and took a ton of pics to share with you here. Oh yes, this is full on prosciutto porn listed in order of my preference.
1. Prosciutto di Parma, Ferrari, $27.99 per pound.
Living up to its name, this is the luxury sports car of prosciutto. It's smooth and salty, texturally flawless with a lovely purely pork taste. It comes straight from Italy and is even aged at least 15 months. But, much as you don't actually need a Ferrari, you don't really need this kind of prosciutto, assuming you're going to serve it cooked or if it's going to be one of several ingredients in a dish. The prosciutto di Parma is a star and deserves to shine in the spotlight. I highly recommend eating this completely on its own or on a plain baguette slice.
2. Prosciutto Americano, La Quercia, $24.99 per pound.
This slice of deeper red-colored meat had a wonderfully yielding, almost flaky texture. No doubt it tastes aptly of salted pork, but it also has a little more complexity, with an almost-sweet finish. It's made here in the U.S. and it's cured and aged really well. I liked this one totally on its own -- that's right, no bread at all for this one. I bet this would be great if you wanted to serve it with fresh herbs or a simple salad of mixed greens and arugula; they'd likely complement each other well.
3. Prosciutto Crudo, Creminelli, $21.99 per pound.
Although there certainly isn't anything offensive about this variety, made in Utah and aged at least 10 months, I didn't find anything that special about it. It was still delicious - because nearly all prosciutto is delicious - and it's definitely steps up from the packaged kind, offering that soft pink color and simple salty piggy flavor. However, eaten raw and on its own, it had the slightly rubbery texture I despise in cheaper prosciutto. I'd use this Creminelli ham in a grilled flatbread (with bleu cheese, balsamic reduction and figs!), in stuffed mushrooms (with lots of parmigiano-reggiano) or with a basil leaf on top of a crostini.
Of course, all this prosciutto-picking got me on an information hunt for this salty cured ham. What is it, exactly, and how is it different from other cured meats?
According to Food Lover's Companion, Prosciutto is a term broadly used to describe a ham (or hind quarters of a pig) that has been seasoned, salt-cured and air-dried - but not smoked. The meat is also pressed, resulting in a firm, dense texture. Italy's Parma Ham, however, is the true prosciutto. It can be added to cooked foods at the last minute -- prolonged cooking will toughen it.
Prosciutto is sometimes cured with nitrites or with sea salt. And, depending on the size, can take anywhere from 9 months to 2 years to age.
You may also have heard of prosciutto cotto, which is cooked, and prosciutto crudo, which is raw but cured. Traditionally, the latter is served as an antipasto, or first course, with melons or figs.
Prosciutto is certainly not to be confused with bacon or pancetta, which, although also cured, are made from pork belly. Pancetta is typically only cured with salt and spices, while bacon is smoked after its curing process.
Prosciutto, however, tastes similar to many other cured meats. But here's how they're different:
- Speck: ham, deboned, then cured with spices, cold smoked and aged about 5 months.
- Capocollo or coppa: pork shoulder or neck salted, stuffed in casing and cured for up to 6 months.
- Serrano: Spanish-cured ham, usually from the Landrace breed of white pig, salted, air-dried and aged about 18 months.
- Iberico: Spanish-cured ham from the black Iberian pig, which has typically had an exclusive diet of acorns, salted, air-dried and aged up to 48 months.
- Bresaola: beef, air-dried, salted and aged about 3 months.