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In a discussion about pancetta and prosciutto in sauces (specifically, bolognese), a friend said that

"Traditionally, prosciutto is never to be cooked."

I have not heard that before. I also cannot find anything in searches for "is prosciutto supposed to be cooked" and "is prosciutto never to be cooked". There are many search results around "does prosciutto need to be cooked?" but nothing about "never to be cooked".

I'm skeptical because prosciutto is a salted and dried meat, like other preserved/smoked/salted/dried/fermented protein stuff like salami, ham hocks, dried squids, dried shrimps, etc. As such it seems reasonable that they could be, and would have been, used as flavoring or condiment for other dishes.

So, is prosciutto traditionally never to be cooked?

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  • Are you asking about making prosciutto, or using it as an ingredient? It's absolutely never cooked as part of making prosciutto. That's probably what your friend meant.
    – J...
    Jun 10 at 11:17
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    @J... except, of course, that there is prosciutto cotto - which is a traditional thing in its own right. Jun 10 at 12:04
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX In English we just call that "ham", so there's no ambiguity. Prosciutto in English always means crudo. If we were speaking Italian then the distinction is important. If we were speaking Italian, of course, we also wouldn't need to have this discussion! ;)
    – J...
    Jun 10 at 12:06
  • The first time I saw prosciutto sitting in my fridge, while still living with my parents, I decided to heat it up in the pan, as I prefer to do with ham and most cold cuts. It concentrated the salt/ saltiness to the extreme and was rendered almost inedible. However, the last time I used prosciutto was in a recipe for Beef Wellington, and it turned out absolutely amazing.
    – RIanGillis
    Jun 11 at 16:56
  • The person may just have problems with articulateing the facts that these are foods eaten raw
    – Neil Meyer
    Jun 12 at 12:32
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'Never to be cooked'… nope. Cook it if you need it cooked.

Saltimbocca alla Romana I'd think to be traditional enough to refute this easily. Jamie Oliver's recipe. There are a million others, but the main ingredients are veal, sage & prosciutto… cooked.

For those questioning Jamie Oliver's credentials on this - Wikipedia lists the same major ingredients - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saltimbocca
as does this one - in Italian too - https://www.tavolartegusto.it/ricetta/saltimbocca-alla-romana-ricetta-originale/

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    Jaimie Oliver is the guy who put chorizo in a paella. I don't think that he is a good example of a person who cares about how traditional Mediterranean food works.
    – Daniel
    Jun 11 at 0:19
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    @Daniel Are you so sure that's not "traditional"? There's some pretty good evidence that historically, paella allowed just about everything, and was more of a technique than a specific dish: elcomidista.elpais.com/elcomidista/2016/10/13/articulo/…
    – Bloodgain
    Jun 11 at 5:25
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    @Bloodgain: Still, my impression was that he just called that recipe a paella based on the general idea. I don't recall him defending it by pointing out that he was already aware of the historical usage of the term, or anything like that. (That's an interesting fact, but it doesn't lend weight to the idea that Jamie Oliver is a traditionalist in his recipes or in their naming. Doesn't mean they're not tasty, but not a good source for history of food cultures.) Jun 11 at 11:01
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    tbh I already knew I was looking for saltimbocca, so I just linked the first recipe with the right ingredients, by someone people would have heard of.
    – unlisted
    Jun 11 at 17:59
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    Regardless of this particular chef, saltimbocca calls for cooked prosciutto in nearly every recipe I've seen. Jun 11 at 18:46
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The problem with saying the word "traditionally" in regard to Italian cooking is that traditions vary wildly from region to region (and often village to village). The person you were talking to is either absolutely correct or not at all accurate (depending entirely on the scope of the word traditionally in their statement).

According to my Italian grandmother, if you're making any kind of sauce, use pancetta or guanciale (depending on its purpose in the recipe) for best results. Prosciutto is "what you use if you can't get the good stuff." I even remember her occasionally apologizing for using prosciutto because our local grocer didn't always have pancetta in stock.

That being said, I have compared family recipes with friends where theirs specifically calls for prosciutto where my recipe says to make something else if you can't get guanciale.

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    I'm confused how prosciutto isn't "the good stuff"; are we talking about non-DOC fake prosciutto here?
    – FuzzyChef
    Jun 9 at 18:45
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    @FuzzyChef only in the context of making sauce. Mostly because pancetta and guanciale both contain more fat and therefore render much better than prosciutto. On its own, prosciutto was served regularly as an antipasto and was definitely considered the "good stuff" in that context. No doubt the propensity for more fat in her sauce is why she only lived to be 104 :) Jun 9 at 19:33
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    On your first bit, it’s not even just Italian cooking this applies to, but almost any cuisine. For example, if you ask people from all over Spain what the most ‘traditional’ Spanish dish is, only the Valencians are likely to say it’s paella, but many people from outside of Spain think of paella immediately when they try to think of traditional ‘Spanish’ cuisine. Jun 10 at 15:53
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    I would use regular bacon before I used prosciutto in a sauce -- why use a fairly expensive meat when the subtle flavors are going to be obliterated by the sauce.
    – eps
    Jun 10 at 16:14
  • @eps or just use good lard if you want a sauce to have a pork taste
    – Neil Meyer
    Jun 12 at 12:34
23

I believe I can explain where your friend's belief comes from.

There are three main traditional cured pork products used in Italian cuisine: prosciutto, pancetta, and guanciale. Of these, (certified) prosciutto is the most expensive, and also the only one that is usually eaten without further cooking. As such, most Italians would use pancetta or guanciale for recipes where the pork is going to be cooked, just as an American would use supermarket ham or bacon and not 2-year-aged Virginia Ham for a soup.

Prosciutto also has less fat than pancetta or guanciale, and many recipes that involve cooking cured pork are depending on the rendered pork fat to then cook other ingredients.

Confusing this for Americans, most of what gets sold as "prosciutto" here isn't actually DOC prosciutto, but is in fact some kind of cheaper local ham. Making it, ironically, better as a cooking ingredient.

So it's not that it's bad to cook prosciutto; it's just expensive and sometimes inefficient.

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    You can definitely eat pancetta and guanciale without further cooking. It's mostly used in cooking, but serving it (preferably sliced paper thin) as an appetiser isn't all that uncommon. Jun 10 at 8:23
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    Changed my wording from "edible without further cooking" to "frequently eaten without further cooking" per comments.
    – FuzzyChef
    Jun 11 at 1:27
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    ("cerfified""certified") Jun 11 at 3:43
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    Italian pancetta is cured, differently from bacon. You don't eat bacon without cooking it, but you can eat Italian pancetta without cooking it and without any risk for your health.
    – apaderno
    Jun 11 at 19:48
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    @FuzzyChef I meant that the raw pancetta another comment is referring to is not what we Italians call pancetta. Your answer is correct, in the same is correct to say that we normally use prosciutto cotto when it needs to be cooked together other meat, or pasta.
    – apaderno
    Jun 11 at 19:59
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I think the more complete and critical answer is from @FuzzyChef.

I think it captures the essence of the problem.

Some more details should be added regarding what's the situation here in Italy. Disclaimer: I'm an Italian living in Italy and I like good cuisine, but I'm not nearly a professional nor a gourmet*.

What you call "prosciutto" in USA here is called, more specifically, "prosciutto crudo", especially when one wants to make a difference between "prosciutto crudo" and "prosciutto cotto", which are fairly different products. Note that "cotto" means "cooked" in Italian, but, as I said, "prosciutto cotto" is not "prosciutto crudo" that has been cooked!

There is no single "DOC" prosciutto (crudo) in Italy. There are a couple of high valued, "DOC" types (very expensive): i.e. "prosciutto crudo di Parma" and "prosciutto crudo S. Daniele", which are somewhat similar products (to a non-gourmet).

But there are also a metric ton of quality types of "prosciutto" made outside the typical areas where "Parma" and "S.Daniele" are produced. The biggest difference is an higher percentage of salt employed during the seasoning. Often those kind of "prosciutto" are called "prosciutto crudo nostrano" ("nostrano" means "made in our area/region") and they cost less than "Parma" or "S.Daniele".

Prosciutto crudo is used in recipes where it ends up being cooked (e.g. Tortellini alla Bolognese, where it is used in the filling), but often you don't use the highly priced "Parma" or "S.Daniele" for that.

As for "pancetta" and "guanciale" they are lower price products here in Italy, because they are meant to be used for cooking, although you can definitely eat "pancetta" raw. It is a very fatty product and also very tasty, and a "panino con la pancetta" (sandwich with "pancetta") is very yummy (and a calorie bomb)!

Keep in mind that in Italy we have probably the most strict legislation against food fraud in the world. In particular, we have an entire branch of one of our national police forces (Carabinieri) who is devoted mainly to prevent and repress food frauds: they are the NAS (Nucleo Anti-Sofisticazioni).

This means that it is very difficult here to be sold "bad food", since an inspection from the NAS finding, say, a restaurant or a food shop selling expired food or (worse) bad food can cause the immediate closure of the business (until further investigations or trials), even if no-one of the customers felt sick!

All this to underline that what you eat in USA and it is sold as "pancetta" or "prosciutto" may not be what we in Italy exactly would expect. We have a huge problem of fake Italian products sold in every part of the world (even worse outside EU), especially where there are customers rich enough to pay a bonus for original Italian stuff (USA, Canada and Australia, for example).

Bottom line: if you buy traditional Italian food in the USA, be sure your shopkeeper sells you legit products, otherwise all bets are off whether or not the products are even remotely the same as the "traditional" ones.

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Cooking with a high quality (and assumedly fairly expensive) prosciutto is like using fillet mignon for stew meat or sushi grade tuna for a fish stew. You are obliterating the great flavors and there's probably a much cheaper and better thing to use instead. Of course there are always exceptions and never say never but it's a good general rule.

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    It's not the same. Beef has relatively less flavor than preserved meats like prosciutto. A bolognese tastes very different depending on whether it has prosciutto or not. I regard bacon, prosciutto, pancetta, etc. as flavorings instead of a protein ingredient. As for it being a general rule, that could be true, since I have not been able to find any "traditional" recipes other than the Saltimbocca alla Romana mentioned above that involve cooking of prosciutto.
    – aqn
    Jun 10 at 20:01
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What do you mean by traditional? The current de facto standard? What is the standard -- and whose standard? Is "traditional" what your grandparents were used to? What was in the cookbooks 50, 100, or 200 years ago?

Most of the time, I find that the word "traditional" is just gatekeeping. What they're really saying is "I don't like the way you did that, and I want to be right without a debate" or worse yet, "You're not one of us." It's bad form and people who do that should stop. It's fine to be interested in historical methods and preparations, such as what The Townsends does with 18th Century American (and British) cooking and what Glen and Friends Cooking does with old Canadian and US cookbooks, but that history should never be used to limit another cook's approach.

Prosciutto is just an ingredient. It should be used as you see fit and experimented with. People have always experimented with flavors and made replacements when their usual ingredient was scarce. That's how we get new foods! I love a nice bit of freshly sliced thin prosciutto, but I've also had it fried up crispy to complement a dish.

Now, for a Bolognese or "Sunday gravy", I'd probably reach for pancetta, guanciale, or even bacon, but that's mostly because I want the fat and the subtle flavors of prosciutto probably wouldn't stand up unless I used a lot of it. But for a lighter sauce made in a pan where I wanted a bit of cured pork, frying some chopped up prosciutto could be really nice. But then, is the prosciutto really part of the sauce? Are the capers and olives really part of the sauce of pasta alla puttanesca? Does it matter?

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  • To answer your question about the puttanesca, yes, it requires olives at minimum. Otherwise what would you call it, marinara? It is meant to be made with cheap filler, which olives certainly are. Jun 11 at 19:33
  • @JasonPSallinger I think you misread that part of my answer, as I wasn't making that point. However, now that you mention it, you're still doing the gatekeeping thing. I agree it would be a bit confusing to serve someone expecting that particular dish one without olives, but what if it had green olives instead of black? Some would get all up in arms over that. But in popular use of the word puttana, pasta alla puttanesca really translates to something like "pasta with whatever shit [I had in the pantry]". And ironically, yeah, it used to be called pasta all marinara in some places!
    – Bloodgain
    Jun 11 at 22:19
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You can cook anything you want, but prosciutto (and Spanish jamón) are not their best when cooked.

The first reason is that they tend to be expensive, and they can be better enjoyed raw.

The second reason is that when you cook them, they don't become crispy like bacon, but hard and rubbery, and they become too salty as well.

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  • Prosciutto cotto is normally used when it's cooked because it's sweeter. Italian prosciutto crudo is salted, and cooking it would make it more salted.
    – apaderno
    Jun 11 at 20:19

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