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Supermarket Prosciutto

Published September 2014

How we tested

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. 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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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*