Raw ham refers to pork that has been cured using salt and air, also known as dry-curing. The dry-curing process is time-consuming, but imparts a rich flavor that is prized by cultures around the world. This product can be found in a number of countries, but some of the most well-known examples are Italian prosciutto, Spanish jamon serrano and jamon iberico, French Basque Bayonne ham and Portuguese presunto.
Raw ham is cut from the haunch of a pig and utilizes the rump and thigh of the animal. The salting and drying process used to cure the ham is one of the oldest food preservation methods in the world and does not require any cooking. The salt acts as a dessicant, drawing out moisture and reducing the amount of bacteria present in the pork, while the air also acts as a bacteria inhibitor. Raw ham can be cured using just salt and air, but other spices are added depending on the region; Bayonne ham, for example, is rubbed liberally with Piment d'Espelette, which is made of dried red peppers.
Traditionally, raw ham was traditionally made during the winter and hung in cellars or basements, when the cold, relatively humid air provided a steady temperature and climate that prevented spoilage. It often is now cured in temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms, which eliminates much of the risk of contamination. Depending on the size of the ham, raw ham can be cured for anywhere from a few months to more than three years.
Many households made their own raw-cured ham before mass-produced food became widely available in the 20th century. That practiced has dwindled in the United States. In Europe, production of many different types of raw ham is codified and regulated by the European Union. For example, the EU recognizes six varieties of prosciutto alone under a Protected Designation of Origin. The designation is meant to ensure authenticity in production and marketing and extends to many types of raw ham created in other EU countries.
Raw ham is traditionally served very thinly sliced. It can be consumed alone or on sandwiches, wrapped around asparagus or melon, added to pasta or risotto, or served as part of an antipasto or tapas plate. Depending on the salt content and the amount of time the ham spent drying, the meat can taste incredibly salty or sweet.