Supermarket Prosciutto

From Cook's Illustrated | September/October 2014

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?

Overview:

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… read more

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. (Why Parma? Learn more about the tradition of making prosciutto.) 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 ham dry-cured in North America. Two of the hams in our lineup were aged for less than 9 months—and tasters noticed, describing them as “not very complex.”

Adding Up Additives

From there, we checked the ingredient labels for clues and homed in on a big difference between the three products that tanked and the ones we recommend. While our top six producers follow the Italians and use nothing but pork and salt, the makers of two of the losing products add nitrates—preservatives that turn the meat’s color bright red and boost its savory flavor so that it tastes like “salami.” These two makers further muddy the flavor of their prosciutti by including unspecified “natural flavorings,” sugar, sodium nitrite (another preservative and curing agent), sodium ascorbate (another preservative), and lactic acid starter culture.

That last ingredient turned out to be another important factor. Lactic acid–producing bacteria, or lactobacillus, launch the fermentation process that breaks down the meat’s proteins into savory peptides and amino acids, which over time help develop the meat’s famously complex depth. In a high-quality prosciutto, the bacteria is allowed to develop naturally over time. This produces a wide range of different bacteria that boost complexity. But some producers shortcut the process by adding lactic acid starter cultures containing a single strain of bacteria. Flavor suffers as a result, leading to the one-note tanginess we noticed in our least favorite brands.

Not surprisingly, sodium was another key factor in our likes and dislikes. Most of our favorite prosciutti (including our winner) were salty. What did surprise us was that the texture of the hams mattered at least as much as their flavor. The most telling examples were the two from one manufacturer. Even though these prosciutti won raves for their “lush” pork flavor, they fell in the rankings. Why? These hams were among the driest and most thickly sliced—a fatal combination that made them taste “chewy” and “jerky-like.” (Thicker-sliced hams with more moisture fared better.) Meanwhile, low-moisture hams that were sliced thinner delivered that ideal combination of complex flavor and supple texture.

Such was the case with our winner. Not only were these low-moisture slices among the thinnest of the lot, but this high-salt prosciutto with “porky complexity” was well worthy of any salumi plate and can be quickly picked up at any supermarket. Meanwhile, for convenience prosciutto that doesn’t cost an arm and, um, a leg, our Best Buy boasts “supple” slices that taste “complex” and a bit less salty.

Methodology:

Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staff members tasted nine North American–made prosciutti, sold presliced and packaged. We sampled them plain and in chicken saltimbocca to assess flavor, saltiness, texture, and overall appeal; we also measured the thickness of a slice from each package. An independent laboratory analyzed levels of sodium, fat, and moisture. Results were averaged and the products appear in order of preference.

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  • Product Tested

    Price*

  • Prices are subject to change.
  • Recommended - Winner

    Volpi Traditional Prosciutto

    “Tender” and “buttery” with a “very nice porky complexity” and a “salty punch” that came from having one of the highest sodium levels in the lineup, our top choice was “sweet, rich-tasting, and acorn-y.” Tasters were wowed by its “silky,” “ultrasupple” texture that was highlighted by the meat being sliced very thinly. Fried up in chicken saltimbocca, it continued to win fans: “The prosciutto really elevated the dish . . . with rich, meaty flavor.”

    3 oz for $5.75 ($1.92 per oz / $30.67 per pound)

  • Recommended - Best Buy

    Del Duca Prosciutto

    With a “nice porky sweetness” and “clean” but “intense” flavor, this prosciutto was one of the most thickly sliced in the lineup, but its ample moisture also gave it a “supple,” “silky” texture. In saltimbocca, it was lauded for its “rich pork belly flavor.” In sum: “Buttery, nutty, complex. This is good stuff.”

    3 oz for $3.59 ($1.20 per oz / $19.15 per pound)

  • Recommended

    Citterio All Natural Prosciutto

    Tasters described this prosciutto as “so tender it practically disintegrates on the way to your mouth.” Its “salty, sweet, oaky” flavor was deemed “classic” and “very pleasant.” Citterio’s thin slices became extra-crispy and “crunchy” when fried in chicken saltimbocca, and while its flavor contribution in that dish was considered “mild,” it was good and salty.

    4 oz for $6.99 ($1.75 per oz / $27.96 per pound)

  • Recommended

    Bellentani Prosciutto

    These slices won fans for their “smooth,” “moist,” “soft, easy to eat” texture that helped tasters forgive their “supermild,” “not very complex” taste, though a few deemed them “hammy” and “nutty-sweet.” In saltimbocca, tasters noted “simple flavor,” but the “crispy, chewy” slices provided “lovely texture.”

    3 oz for $6.49 ($2.16 per ounce / $34.61 per pound)

  • Recommended

    La Quercia Berkshire Prosciutto

    “Beautiful ruby color,” raved tasters, giving this prosciutto “points for presentation.” This color is a hallmark of Berkshire pork, which La Quercia makes from humanely raised Niman Ranch pigs. Tasters praised its “salty, gamy, nutty,” “lush, full pork flavor” that boasted “real character.” But its combination of low moisture and thick slices made it taste “chewy,” or even “hard and stringy,” which brought its score down in both tastings.

    4 oz for $8.99 plus shipping ($2.25 per ounce / $35.96 per pound)

  • Recommended with Reservations

    La Quercia Prosciutto Americano

    There were near-unanimous raves for the complex flavor of this prosciutto, our former top pick: “so rich, with notes of toasty nuts, wine, and a lovely sweet finish,” “meaty and quite sweet,” and “an almost cheddar-y flavor.” But as with its sibling, tasters found it “too dry—almost like a prosciutto jerky” as well as “tough” and “leathery”—whether plain or in saltimbocca. The company told us that it has tweaked its processing to produce a drier, less salty prosciutto since we tasted it last.

    3 oz for $10.99 plus shipping ($3.66 per ounce / $58.61 per pound)

  • Not Recommended

    Applegate Naturals Prosciutto

    “Chewy” was the oft-repeated description of this ham. While some tasters liked its “sweet porkiness,” others found that it tasted “supermild” or “just OK,” not to mention “a bit gummy,” even “flabby.” In saltimbocca, its inclusion of unspecified spice flavoring may have helped remind one taster of “Domino’s pepperoni.”

    4 oz for $6.99 ($1.75 per oz / $27.96 per pound)

  • Not Recommended

    Columbus Prosciutto

    This prosciutto’s “tangy salami” flavor can likely be traced to its ingredient list. Its added lactic acid starter culture is known for producing a one-note tanginess not found in imported prosciutto. The other additives imparted flavor that tasted more like that of “hot dogs,” “bologna,” or “deli ham” than prosciutto. The texture was also too “lean,” “wet,” and “waxy.”

    3 oz for $5.89 ($1.96 per oz / $31.41 per pound)

  • Not Recommended

    Dietz & Watson Prosciutto

    The lactic acid starter culture, along with the inclusion of nitrates, doomed this prosciutto, too. One taster summed it up: “Too lean, and tastes funky and tangy like salami. [Tastes] nothing like the real thing!” High moisture and paper-thin slicing made its texture “wet” and “almost transparent,” though it still crisped up well in saltimbocca.

    3 oz for $5.49 ($1.83 per oz / $29.28 per pound)

*PRICES SUBJECT TO CHANGE
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