Prosciutto, or Parma ham, is a dry-cured ham from central and northern Italy.
Strictly speaking, prosciutto means "ham" in Italian. Therefore, it generically refers to the pork cut, and not to its specific preparation. So in Italian there is a disctinction between prosciutto crudo (literally "raw ham", that is to say cured ham, which English speakers refer to as "prosciutto") and prosciutto cotto ("cooked ham", which is similar to what English speakers call "ham", as a derivative of the pork cut).
The process of making prosciutto can take anywhere from nine to eighteen months, depending on the size of the ham. First the ham is cleaned, salted, and left for about two months. Next it is washed several times to remove the salt. It is then hung in a shady, airy place. The air is important to the final quality of the ham. The ham is left until dry. This takes a variable amount of time, depending on the local climate, and size of the ham. When the ham is completely dry, it is hung in an airy place at room temperature for up to eighteen months.
Interestingly, prosciutto is never cured with nitrates (either sodium or potassium), which are generally used in ham production to produce the desired rosy color and unique flavor. Only sea salt is used. The pigmentation seems to be produced by certain bacteria, rather than a direct chemical reaction.
Prosciutto crudo in Italian cuisine is usually served as an antipasto, sliced tissue-paper thin and optionally wrapped around grissini or, especially in summer, melon.
Protected designation of origin
Under the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union, certain well-established meat products including some local prosciutto, are covered by a Protected Designation of Origin and other, less stringent designations of geographical origin for traditional specialties.
There are two famous types of prosciutto crudo exported abroad: prosciutto di Parma, from Parma, and prosciutto di San Daniele, from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, which is darker in color and sweeter in flavor.