In Italian, "prosciutto" refers to the pork cut, not to its specific preparation. Italian speakers therefore make a distinction between prosciutto cotto (literally, "cooked ham"), which is similar to what English speakers would call "ham", and prosciutto crudo ("raw ham"), the dry-cured ham which English speakers refer to as simply "prosciutto" or "Parma ham". By default, in Italian menus (typically in pizzerias) an unqualified "prosciutto" refers to "ham" ("prosciutto cotto"), whereas "prosciutto crudo" is sometimes referred to simply as "crudo".
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. During this time the ham is pressed, gradually and carefully to avoid breaking the bone, to drain all blood left in the meat. Next it is washed several times to remove the salt and hung in a shady, airy place. In some places—for example Croatia—the ham is smoked by burning different types of wood that give the prosciutto a special flavor - this type of ham is often called by the German name Speck. The surrounding air is important to the final quality of the ham; the best results are obtained in a cold climate. The ham is then left until dry. The amount of time this takes varies, depending on the local climate and size of the ham. When the ham is completely dry it is hung in an airy place, either at room temperature or in a controlled environment, for up to eighteen months.
Prosciutto is sometimes cured with nitrites (either sodium or potassium), which are generally used in other hams to produce the desired rosy color and unique flavour. Only sea salt is used in many PDO hams, but not all, some consortia are allowed to use nitrite. Prosciutto’s characteristic pigmentation seems to be produced by certain bacteria, rather than a direct chemical reaction.
Traditional prosciutto is cured for over 3 years. Bill Buford describes talking to an old Italian butcher who says:
“When I was young, there was one kind of prosciutto. It was made in the winter, by hand, and aged for two years. It was sweet when you smelled it. A profound perfume. Unmistakable. To age a prosciutto is a subtle business. If it’s too warm, the aging process never begins. The meat spoils. If it’s too dry, the meat is ruined. It needs to be damp but cool. The summer is too hot. In the winter—that's when you make salumi. Your prosciutto. Your soppressata. Your sausages.”
Prosciutto is often served in sandwiches, sometimes in a variation on the Caprese Salad, with basil, tomato and fresh mozzarella. A basic sandwich served in some European cafes and bars consists of prosciutto in a croissant.
A complete list of agricultural products with an EU Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), or Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG), listed alphabetically by nation, is at the Europa Agriculture site
There are two famous types of Italian prosciutto crudo exported abroad: prosciutto di Parma, from Parma, and prosciutto di San Daniele, from the San Daniele del Friuli area, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. The prosciutto di Parma has a slightly nutty flavor from the Parmigiano Reggiano whey that is sometimes added to the pigs' diet. The prosciutto di San Daniele, on the other hand, is darker in color and sweeter in flavour.
The other EU protected designations for prosciutto, each slightly different in color, flavour and texture, are:
Similar hams are produced in many other countries, such as Jinhua ham in China and country ham in the southern United States. In some cases similar hams are made in imitation of others rather than following a long tradition.