Making Italian Prosciutto Crudo, Cured Ham in Parma: The Salting

Prosciutto crudo di Parma, or cured ham, may be one of the most popular Italian foods known – but do you know how it’s made?

Part 1 in a series about how Prosciutto di Parma is made when I visited a prosciuttificio (prosciutto factory) during the Festival del Prosciutto in the province of Parma.

On the occasion of the Festival del Prosciutto di Parma in the province of Parma, we made our way just south of Parma to Langhirano (lahn-ghee-RA-no) where the festival was taking place that weekend. A small town of about 9,000 people, Langhirano houses the Museo del Prosciutto / Museum of Prosciutto as well, which I visited but that’s for another post. The festival runs from August 29 – September 20, 2009, so you still have time to celebrate!

On occasion of the festival, there were organized tours into a prosciuttificio – prosciutto-making establishment, leaving from the main station. I’m not sure if this trend will continue during the year – it’s best to go early and ask at the museum or stop by the station area to see if they have a little tent set up to coordinate the visits. The visits were organized only in the morning. Look for “Finestre aperte” signs which indicate the factory is open for a visit.

Many of the prosciuttifici are quite small and you get a sense of how much care goes into the preparation of prosciutto di Parma. We were lucky enough to have one of the owners of Corradi Guerino show us around his prosciuttificio.

One of my favorite things about food is learning how it’s made. It definitely increases my appreciation for the food next time I encounter it, if not increases my actual pleasure in eating it, knowing how much work went into getting it to that point. When I had access to television in the U.S., one of my favorite programs was on the Food Network, “Unwrapped,” which investigated all the behind-the-scenes details on how popular candy and other treats are made, whether by hand or in factories.

I just love that stuff!

Prosciutto di Parma has a DOP status (Protected Designation of Origin) since 1996 (one of the first in Europe) which means only products which meet standard requirements can be given the distinction of being called “Prosciutto di Parma.”

Along one wall, Corradi Guerino has some of the European Union requisiti / requirements for non-regulation fresh swine thighs in terms of appearance. This is how inspectors decide which legs don’t conform to the norms, and which can proceed. Just in this picture, you can see that they focus on “grasso poco consistente” – the fat around the cut of the leg is not consistent (lower left), “sfesatura” which roughly translates to breakage/inconsistency in the surface of the meat (top right) and “alterazione cromatiche del grasso” – the fat layer has breakage / inconsistency or strange marbling through the meat (lower right).

This is not to say that that leg of swine doesn’t someday become prosciutto – but it definitely won’t be labeled Prosciutto di Parma.

Regulations for non-conforming swine legs (for making Prosciutto di Parma)

Onto the prosciutto preparation! The legs are first cleaned, salted and left for up to two months (but usually closer to a month). Two types of salt are used in the process – “wet” salt covers the exposed part of the meat to keep it moist and “dry” salt is used for the rest of the leg. The leg also needs to be at the right temperature: too cold and it will not absorb enough salt; too warm and it might start to deteriorate.

Close-up of Prosciutto di Parma process: the Salting

They are kept at low temperatures to avoid spoiling. You can tell by the fresh appearance of the meat that these legs haven’t been curing for very long and are di primo sale “first salt” which lasts around a week. Then the excess salt is removed, and a lighter coating of salt is added to continue the salting process (two pics down). Some of the legs have already been discarded due to the imperfections mentioned above. No other additives or preservatives are used, and it’s absolutely forbidden to freeze a leg that will become Prosciutto di Parma.

Prosciutto di Parma, stage 1: Salting

Here the prosciutto legs are di secondo sale – “the second salt”. You can see that they are more dried than before but they are still being refrigerated, and will be in this phase for 15-18 days. Funny thing, many of the Italians entered the large refrigeration room where these legs were being held and promptly exited again. It was quite cold and contrasted with the outside, normal temp (being the end of summer) and for most Italians change in temperature = another way to get sick. I agree in part, but I was definitely not going to miss out and spent quite a few minutes in the cooler.

Salted legs curing at low temperatures in Parma

During the salting process, the prosciutto are given “massages” to remove all of the blood still left in the meat.

Prosciutto di Parma legs salted and curing

Up next…prosciutto cures for months, and you’ll find out what sugna is and what it’s used for!

Continue Reading: Part 2: Making Prosciutto di Parma: the Drying and Sugna

If you’re planning on participating in the O Foods for Ovarian Cancer Awareness Contest – prosciuttO is a great O Food!

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  1. says

    I’m a sucker for a food production tour, too. So interesting. But, I admit I’m a little disappointed to see those sterile refrigeration rooms…what about that mountain air curing?? Sugna – yummmm!