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on July 21, 2011

Prosciutto (pro-SHOO-toh) is the Italian term for a salt-cured ham. The most celebrated examples are Prosciutto di Parma, produced from pigs raised within a small, 11-region area—notably Emiglia-Romagna and nearby Lombardy, Italy.

Aside from a rear leg of pig, the ingredients are salt, air and time. But if the formula is simple, the process is painstaking and vigilant. In a carefully timed series of steps, hams are massaged with sea salt, hung to dry, transported from airy lofts to moist cellars, then remoistened with fat or a bath in the local wine. The process takes 18 months or more.

Italy makes two types of prosciutto: crudo (raw) and cotto (cooked), but crudo is the treasured morsel. It self-sterilizes in curing so no cooking is required, and in northern Italy, it’s rarely used in recipes. Rather, it’s savored in as an antipasto, thinly sliced and accompanied only by bread.

Italian prosciutto ranges from pink to dark rose, with a mild flavor and silken texture. U.S. producers now make some nice prosciuttos, although they tend to be saltier than Italian prosciutto. The Serrano ham of Spain is a similar artisan product, and with the right connections, you may find a salt-cured country ham from the Southeastern United States, although most country hams are smoked.

—By Jo Marshall, Creator of Cookcabulary