Cooked as is, a fresh ham makes quite a tasty pork roast. But more often than not, hams are cured to enhance their flavor and prolong their shelf life. Traditionally, the curing process involves either a dry salt rub or a soak in seasoned brine. After curing, hams are sometimes smoked, and the higher-quality types are aged.
Dry curing a ham involves three basics—salt, air, and time. This type of ham comes from all over the globe: Italy has prosciutto, Germany, Westphalian ham, Spain its serrano, and the American south boasts several country hams.
Prosciutto is often seen wrapped around a slice of melon or other fruit, or draped on an antipasto platter or around a breadstick. While prosciutto is produced all over Italy and in the U.S., the best is made in and around the Italian city of Parma.
Prosciutto di Parma starts with top-quality pigs, bred especially for their large hindquarters. They're fed a diet of corn, barley, and other cereals, along with the whey left over from the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano—another star ingredient from this same region of Emilia-Romagna. After slaughter, the pig's hindquarter is trimmed into its typical "chicken drumstick" shape and coarse sea salt is rubbed into the meat. The salting and subsequent air-curing takes place under carefully controlled conditions of temperature and humidity, so the ham absorbs only enough salt to preserve it. A total of 400 days of processing and aging is mandated to produce the genuine prosciutto di Parma imported to the U.S.—a rich, rosy ham with a complex flavor. Each step of production, from the breeding of the pigs, through the curing, to the final packaging is controlled by the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, which brands the finished hams with its crown-shaped seal.
Westphalian ham is a dry-cured ham produced in the Westphalia forest of Western Germany. The pigs destined for this ham are raised on a diet of acorns, then the hindquarters are dry-cured and slowly smoked over beechwood mixed with juniper branches. The combination of diet, curing, and smoking results in a red- brown, very dense ham with a distinctive, light smoky flavor.
Serrano ham literally means "from the mountains" in Spanish. Cured in the cool, dry mountain air, these hams get their unique flavor, aroma, and texture from their environment. The curing process begins by stacking the whole hams like piles of firewood and covering them with salt to draw off excess moisture. Serranos are then hung to dry for about 6 months for the first curing phase. Then it's on to phase II, when the hams are kept for 6-18 months in special drying sheds called secaderos to develop their distinctive qualities. Serrano ham is used often in tapas, salads, soups, vegetables, and eggs.
Dry-cured hams should be sliced paper-thin and served at room temperature to maximize their subtle flavor and aroma. Slice the ham right before serving; exposure to air quickly dries it out and darkens the rosy color. For cooking, sauté over low heat to prevent shriveling and toughening.
Store unsliced, dry-cured hams in a cool place for 1-2 months. Once sliced, the ham must be tightly wrapped and refrigerated, and is best used within 2-3 days. Larger pieces can be held a week or longer in the refrigerator. Vacuum-packed dry-cured hams can be refrigerated, unopened, up to 3 months; once the seal is broken, use within one month.