If you were wondering what are those small white dots and spots on your prosciutto crudo, then you’ll be interested to know they are actually ham mites. The most common cause for white spots, dots, specks or flecks on your prosciutto crudo is the mite Tyrophagus putrescentiae, present naturally on hams such as prosciutto crudo. Other possible causes are tyrosine crystals and white mold. Find out how safe it is to eat prosciutto with white spots, how long will your prosciutto last and how you can tell if your prosciutto has gone bad based on how it looks.
It is common to see small white dots or spots or white flecks on prosciutto crudo, the famous traditional Italian raw (crudo), salt-cured and dried ham. Prosciutto crudo is normally redder in color, with tones of pink-red and red, crossed by thin white veins of pork fat in a beautiful marbled effect, and a thicker band of white pork fat near the rind. At times, small white spots or dots or white flecks appear on the prosciutto, both on the red meat parts and on the fatty parts. These can occur both on individual slices (pre-sliced prosciutto) and on the exposed meat of the whole prosciutto leg once it’s cut (the cut side).
What are the white dots on prosciutto?
There are actually several things that may cause white dots, spots, specks or flecks on your prosciutto crudo. The most common cause is a ham mite, Tyrophagus putrescentiae, but white mold and tyrosine crystals are also possible causes. A fact you may find interesting is that you may find white dots on prosciutto crudo, but not cotto. The main reason why prosciutto crudo gets white spots is because it’s raw, uncooked meat – salt-cured, dried and aged meat, but still raw, uncooked meat.
Prosciutto mite (cause 1)
Mites don’t just live in your bedding or on your face – they are absolutely everywhere, including on your prosciutto crudo. If you notice small white spots or dots, specks or flecks on the cut side of your prosciutto leg or on your pre-sliced prosciutto, and they are moving, then you’re likely dealing with a prosciutto mite. The scientific name is Tyrophagus putrescentiae and it’s a mite, that is, an arthropod or a really tiny insect. There are a few tens of thousands of different mite species and this one likes prosciutto. The prosciutto mite appears on prosciutto crudo because it’s raw meat, but it’s more likely to occur if the prosciutto is kept somewhere that is too warm (anything above 15-18 degrees Celsius can count as too warm) or if it’s cut and left for too long without being eaten. If the white spots, dots or flecks are moving, then they’re living mites actively eating your prosciutto. If they aren’t, then they’re dead mites and their waste material.
Is prosciutto with white spots safe to eat?
It depends. The prosciutto mites are themselves a source of protein, so they do add to the nutritional status of the prosciutto. Not to mention they occur naturally on the prosciutto and they aren’t pathogenic. Some people feel that it’s safe to eat prosciutto with white spots, aka mites, so long as the ham isn’t overwhelmed with them. I’ve eaten prosciutto with mites too and was ok. However, mites in general can cause side effects such as allergic reactions in some people, with symptoms such as redness, itchiness and bumps (dermatitis), and even respiratory symptoms. As such, it is advised to wipe off the moving white spots from your prosciutto, and then eat it.
You can do so with a clean cloth, either dry or soaked in some water (but remember to dry off the prosciutto afterwards to prevent spoilage). Alternatively you can use a cooking oil such as extravirgin olive oil or sunflower oil, or better yet, pork lard or prosciutto fat. If you have yourself a whole prosciutto leg, you can first wipe off of the moving white spots from the cut side and also discard the first slice, then proceed to eat the next slice – chances are the mites haven’t gotten to it. And an interesting fact: Tyrophagus putrescentiae, the prosciutto mite, is not only eating your prized imported Italian ham, but also drying it. If you notice your ham getting drier and there are some white specks or flecks moving on it, then it’s the mites.
Tyrosine crystals (cause 2)
Tyrosine crystals are crystals of the amino acid tyrosine, basically the crystallized amino acid. They occur naturally in ham, including prosciutto crudo, but also jamon serrano and Iberico. Tyrosine is a non-essential amino acid found in high-protein foods such as pork meat, cheese and more. The curing process oversees the drying of the ham meat and the breakdown of the naturally-occurring proteins in the meat into peptides and amino acids. This can lead to the formation of free amino acids that crystallize and form irregular white spots on prosciutto. Tyrosine crystals in prosciutto are believed to be a sign of artisanal meat curing and indicate curing without preservatives. Some consider tyrosine crystals in prosciutto, jamon and ham in general a defect; however, the crystals result from a slow and natural curing process, unaided by preservatives, meaning you can safely enjoy prosciutto with these white spots and have the satisfaction that you are eating and traditional agricultural and artisanal food product.
How to tell if prosciutto has mites or tyrosine crystals? For one, if you notice white dots, spots, specks or flecks on your prosciutto and you see some of them moving or can wipe them off, then it’s likely prosciutto mites. But if your prosciutto spots aren’t moving at all, any of them, and they are irregular in shape, more granule-like and chalky in consistency, then you likely have yourself tyrosine crystals.
White mold on prosciutto (cause 3)
Is it possible for prosciutto to get moldy? Absolutely! Those who makes their own prosciutto crudo at home and do not have exact control of factors in their environment such as humidity or temperature may find their prosciutto growing mold. It can be your usual blue-green-gray hairy mold or a white mold. The problem with mold is that you don’t always know if it’s edible mold – a mold that just happens to grow on your ham is not automatically safe to eat just because you were curing ham – it may very well be pathogenic and cause disease.
Prosciutto mold is a very real thing, especially for small prosciutto artisans. Small white dots of mold can appear on the prosciutto rind and more commonly on the ham inside. This is likely due to increased humidity, either environmental or in the cured meat. Prosciutto mold from the rind can be removed safely, but white mold on the inside of prosciutto is more problematic. If it’s only on the first slice or the first part of the ham, you can try and trim the ham until you get to a part without mold. But if the whole prosciutto is contaminated, then it’s best to just discard it.
How long does prosciutto last?
Pre-sliced prosciutto lasts for as long as it says on the label, so check the expiration date. So far, most of the pre-prosciutto I’ve got was good for 2-3 weeks tops. But once the package is open, it requires refrigeration. I’d eat the prosciutto in a couple of days. Leaving it in the fridge for more than 3 days will cause the meat to oxidize and lose color and flavor. It’s also best to keep it covered while in refrigerated.
The whole prosciutto leg is cured for at least 12-13 months and up to 2-3 years, the original PDO, Protected Designation of Origin (DOP in Italian) prosciutto that is. So long as you don’t start it, it can last for well over a year, given it’s kept in a cool, dark, dry place. Once cut, the whole prosciutto leg needs to be kept in a cool and dry place, with the cut side covered to protect it and create somewhat of a barrier against humidity. And, of course, eaten. But it can last a long time if stored properly, around a year.
How to tell if prosciutto is bad?
Here are the signs to look for in your prosciutto to tell if it is fresh or has gone bad:
- Color: Prosciutto crudo should have a bright, deep red color if it’s fresh and still good to eat. As it oxidize, it slowly loses its bright color. Prosciutto that is grayish-red or brownish-red or looks washed out is no longer at peak freshness.
- Taste: Fresh prosciutto crudo has delicate sweet flavors, a somewhat smoked-meat aftertaste with salty flavor notes. It’s overall delicate and definitely tastes like a cured pork meat. But if it’s gone bad, you will definitely taste it.
- Smell: Prosciutto smells like cured ham, with somewhat heavy flavors, but nonetheless fresh. You can tell if it is bad by an uninviting smell – if you eat it regularly, you’ll know right away if it’s fresh or not.
- Fluffy or hairy mold, whether white or blue, gray or green, is a clear indication the prosciutto has gone bad.