When I was younger, the mother of a friend would make prosciutto in the back room of their apartment under the eaves in downtown Siena, and I remember how good that room smelled as I watched her scoop handfuls of salt over the ham one day. Dry-cured hams (cured in salt and then air-dried) are an important part of many different cuisines, but they are particularly important in Italy. Tuscan prosciutto differs from the more-famous Parma and San Daniele prosciuttos in that it adds spices and herbs during the curing process.
To make your own at home, you'll need:
- A very fresh pork leg from a pig that's just been butchered, cut by an expert butcher, and which hasn't been refrigerated; it should be plump and fleshy, with the central vein well drained (have the butcher do this for you, because if any blood remains the prosciutto won't cure properly), and it should weigh between 26 and 33 pounds (12 to 15 kg), or even more, if it's from a sow.
- 12 to 15 cloves garlic (this is an indicative quantity; you could find yourself needing much more) plus dried spices (indicated below)
- A cool, dark place that's well-ventilated and not overly damp, though not bone-dry either.
- A great deal of patience (it takes at least 10 to 11 months to cure an entire ham for prosciutto)
[Edited by Danette St. Onge]
- 1 30-pound fresh ham
- 12 to 15 cloves garlic (peeled) and ground in a mortar together with lightly moistened fine sea salt,
- 1 to 2 handfuls of black peppercorns
- A few pinches mixed spices (a bit of any mixture of the following: cinnamon, nutmeg, juniper berries, bay leaves, and cloves; you don't want them to overshadow everything else).
- 6 pounds salt (fine sea salt)
Grind the garlic in a mortar together with lightly moistened fine sea salt, peppercorns, and spices.
Lay the ham on a surface that won't absorb liquids and rub it very well with the garlic mixture.
Let it rest for 3 days, wiping away any liquids it may give off, then massage it again with more of the garlic mixture and salt it well with fine sea salt.
Repeat the process again after 5 days and salt it abundantly.
Leave it flat on the surface to absorb salt and give off moisture for 30 days, turning it occasionally, and then shake off the excess salt and let it rest for another 10 days.
At this point it is salted; rinse it with a mixture of equal parts warm water and distilled white vinegar, and hang it up to dry in a dry place that's impervious to flies (they're drawn to prosciutto at this stage) for 2 to 3 months.
Cover the exposed flesh of the ham with rendered lard and hang it to age for another 7 to 8 months.
At this point it's ready, though barely; many prosciutto makers age their prosciutto for 15 or more months total. You may follow their lead, or, if you want to experience something truly special, seal it up in a wooden case surrounded by wood ash for 2 years. The quality of the ash is important -- you'll want ash from non-resinous hardwood, for example, oak or chestnut. I wouldn't use pine.
How to slice a prosciutto:
You'll need a sharp knife; the traditional prosciutto knife is about 12 inches long and 1/2-inch wide. You'll also want a prosciutto holder, which is a large clamp device that lets you stand the prosciutto on edge, with the bone horizontal (one generally begins with the half with the most meat facing up). Trim away the rind and begin slicing the prosciutto, parallel to the bone, trimming away more rind as necessary. With practice you'll be able to cut thin, even slices. Once you reach the bone, flip the prosciutto over and begin sliding the other side. Once you have trimmed away all the meat you can get, use the prosciutto bone for soup.