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A new surge of grab ’n’ go packages means you no longer have to wait at the deli counter to have this cured pork sliced by hand. But does “convenience” prosciutto make the cut?
What We Learned
Not too long ago, the only way to buy prosciutto was to find an Italian market and wait while someone sliced imported prosciutto di Parma or prosciutto di San Daniele by hand. What you get is sublime: rosy, supple slices of pork that are at once salty, tangy, and sweet and incredibly complex.
But since American and Canadian producers have gotten into the game, this cured pork is easier to come by. Many sell their prosciutto in supermarkets in grab ’n’ go packages, making it as easy to buy as bologna.
Since it can be hard to find hand-sliced Italian prosciutto at smaller supermarkets, we were happy about the meat’s wider availability. But we also couldn’t help wondering if these presliced North American prosciutti retained the same depth of flavor and soft texture that we expect from Italian prosciutto that’s sliced to order. Price was also on our radar: Purchasing nine of these products confirmed that presliced non-Italian prosciutto is no bargain. The per-pound prices ranged from just over $19 to a whopping $58-and-change. The numbers are even more staggering when compared with the cost of prosciutto di Parma and prosciutto di San Daniele: about $23 and $20 per pound, respectively.
As for flavor, we tried them plain and also seared in chicken saltimbocca. The good news: We liked most of the samples. A few even boasted some of the complexity and silky texture that we expect from the Italian imports. The three we panned not only lacked porkiness but also carried a pronounced spice flavor that tasters compared to salami. To figure out what might separate the winners from the losers, we started by learning how prosciutto is made on its home turf.
It’s in the Air
Italians have been curing ham for more than 2,000 years, most notably around Parma. Producers in this city still make prosciutto under the eye of a consortium that sears Parma’s crown icon onto every approved ham. Prosciutto di San Daniele, from the Friuli region, has its own consortium and ham leg–shaped icon. Both are designated “PDO”—Protected Designation of Origin—by the European Union, meaning they are exceptional regional products with exclusive rights to their names.
Producers in both regions use the same basic method: After slaughtering pigs, they salt and hang the legs for a minimum of 12 months. The meat’s flavor concentrates with age, as prosciutto loses up to 30 percent of its weight in moisture during curing.
Age gave us our first clue as to the flavor differences among our non-Italian prosciuttos. Whereas the U.S. government requires that dry-cured ham from Italy be aged for at least 400 days (a little more than 13 months), it doesn’t set a minimum age for ha...