The Intricacies of Prosciutto di San Daniele

This specialty from northern Italy has characteristics all its own.

Where prosciutto is concerned, region plays a big part in the dry cured ham’s characteristics and flavor. Prosciutto di San Daniele, which comes from the northern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, has a melt-in-your-mouth texture, rich flavor, just the right level of saltiness and versatility that make it a wonderful addition to a variety of dishes—or perfect paired with a slice of cheese and nothing else.

Cheese Connoisseur

Not just anyone in this part of the world can produce this meat, which makes it even more of a delicacy. Prosciutto di San Daniele is protected by a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) law, which means it can only be made in a certain area with specific practices. Only 31 companies are licensed to produce the ham. They must work with the approximately 4,000 pig farms across a 10-region area in northeast Italy to procure the premium legs and thighs combination that can be turned into ham. Only Italian Large White, Landrace and Duroc pigs that were born, raised and slaughtered in one of the regions are permitted for use. The pigs’ diet is strictly controlled, and they must be raised under humane conditions. Slaughter comes only after they are nine months old.

The prosciutto can only be made in the 13-square-mile area that makes up San Daniele del Friuli, a small municipality that is home to about 8,000 people. There’s a good reason for that. “The temperature and climate (of the region) are very good for the curing of meats,” says Eduardo Valle Lobo, co-executive chef of Frasca Food & Wine, a Friulian-focused restaurant in Boulder, CO. The region has a unique microclimate that is created when cold air coming down from the Alps meets warm air blowing in from the Adriatic Sea.

To start the curing process, each leg is rubbed with salt from the nearby ocean. It is pressed to help the salt penetrate the flesh and allowed to rest for four months. After that, the legs are washed, dried and left to mature until the 13th month after processing began. At the conclusion of the aging process, they are tested and branded with a special seal so consumers know they are getting the real thing.

In keeping with the Italian philosophy of not letting an ounce of food go to waste, the entire leg can be used for cooking, says Kelly Jeun, Frasca’s other co-executive chef. “You can thin slice the meat and serve it as-is with crème fraîche, apples and horseradish. The leaner part, where it’s more muscular, you can grind and put into sausage or ragú. You can make a broth with the bone and use it in soup or pasta.”

Cheese Connoisseur

But the fatty portion in the thigh is the undisputed star of this ham. Ethan McKee, executive chef at Urbana in Washington, D.C., says the biggest difference between Parma ham and Prosciutto di San Daniele is that the latter is less salty, which makes it easier to pair with various foods. “San Daniele, to me, is a little more versatile,” he says. It has more depth of flavor and nuance than Spanish Serrano ham, “especially if you just chew it and hold it in your mouth for a period of time and let it develop.”

“Prosciutto di San Daniele has a sweet quality,” says Matt Sigler, executive chef at Il Solito in Portland, OR. “The color of it is almost vibrant, so I think it looks prettier on a plate.”

The main drawbacks to Prosciutto di San Daniele are that it’s harder to find and a little bit more expensive, says McKee. But the price difference isn’t so great that it should keep any true foodie or great restaurant from making the investment.

Eating in the Raw

The key to eating prosciutto without cooking it is to ensure it’s sliced very thin. It’s delicious on its own, but it also pairs nicely with a number of ingredients, including cheese. “I like Alpine cheeses like Asiago, Fontina and Taleggio,” says Sigler. “The funk goes great with the sweetness of ham.” It’s hard to go wrong with classic Parmesan. He’s also a fan of Sardinian-style cheeses, such as Pecorino and Fiore Sardo, a Pecorino-style cheese that is smoked.

Valle Lobo likes to pair Prosciutto di San Daniele with cheeses made in the same region. One of his favorites is Montasio, a semi-hard cheese that develops small holes and a brown rind. “It has different stages of maturation,” he says. “At three months, it’s milder. When it is aged, it becomes almost like a Parmigiano Reggiano.”

Frico Balacia is another cheese from Friuli. It is well-suited for pan frying and is often used to make a dish called frico, which involves frying cheese into a sort of pancake. The cheese can be cooked on its own to make an elegant, lacy roll that looks like a Parmesan crisp. Or it can be mixed with shredded potatoes to make a dish that looks like a latke.

Cheese Connoisseur

When McKee serves the prosciutto with cheese, he likes to use ash-ripened Robiola from Boxcarr Handmade Cheese in Cedar Grove, NC. He also likes to make crostini with sheep’s milk Ricotta, meat and a little bit of truffle. The sheep milk version of the cheese is harder to find, he says, “but it has a tanginess and a nicer flavor.”

His other pairing suggestions vary depending on the time of year. “It’s really important that you work with what’s in season if you’re using a vegetable or fruit or even a cheese,” he recommends “In the springtime around here, you’re thinking asparagus. White asparagus comes to mind, too, because it’s special.” Come summer, he’ll wrap fresh melon and figs in thin prosciutto slices.

In the fall, he likes to serve Prosciutto di San Daniele with butternut squash or pear mostarda, a condiment typically made with sweetened fruit and mustard seeds. In the winter, he’ll pair the ham with chutney or preserved fruit and pickles. “Something that has a sweet and sour component or a pungent component, but also something that isn’t overpowering, because the ham is pretty delicate, so I feel like it’s wasted with too much condiment.”

McKee’s main piece of advice for working with sliced prosciutto is to eat it when a day or two of buying it. “The pre-sliced ham dries out because it’s sliced so thin, even if it’s packaged really well,” he says.

The other option is to buy a chunk and slice it at home. People sometimes think they can’t do that because they can’t make the pieces as thin as the deli-cut ones. But McKee points out that any restaurant with a whole leg that’s cut tableside has someone slicing the meat by hand. “When you’re slicing it like that, no matter how good you are at it, you’re going to have some slices that are a little more chewy or thin. That’s okay because you get more of the saltiness or flavor in each bite.”

There’s another good reason to slice the meat at home by yourself, says Jeun. “By not using an electric slicer, you’re not putting any heat on the ham, so you’re not melting any of the fat and compromising any of the qualities.”

Cooking with Prosciutto

“Our main dish we use it for is called coccoli, which is from Siena,” says Sigler. “It’s a little fried dough that’s tossed in truffle honey, and then it’s served with Taleggio cheese and has the Prosciutto di San Daniele on top of that.”

The meat is delicious with saltimbocca, which is veal wrapped in prosciutto and sage leaves and marinated in wine or olive oil. Sigler will sometimes add some Asiago Pressato or Fontina to the dish. He also makes a pasta where he folds very thin slices of prosciutto, Asiago, cabbage and other vegetables together until the cheese melts and everything gets incorporated together.

“If you’re just having sliced prosciutto and putting it in a dish or pasta, I like to put it in at the very end,” says McKee. “I don’t like to cook it a lot. You lose a lot of flavor.” He’ll julienne slices or tear them into pieces with his fingers, then toss them into pasta carbonara after it’s removed from the stove. “It gets warmed through, but not cooked.”

Cheese Connoisseur

Another possibility is to wrap a fig or piece of asparagus in the ham and cook it very quickly over high heat. “You get a little bit of charred flavor and caramelization but maintain some of the rawness of it,” he says.

Valle Lobo and Jeun use the meaty, ground prosciutto in meatballs and canederli, an Italian take on the boiled dumplings commonly found in eastern Europe. “When we get to the butt end and it’s not sliceable, we’ll grind it and turn it into a vinaigrette for Brussels sprouts,” says Sigler. The bits of meat add saltiness and flavor to a blend of chopped shallot, sherry vinegar, olive oil and other simple ingredients. It’s topped with Parmesan cheese for a side dish that everyone—even the world’s biggest Brussels sprout hater—is sure to love.

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