Pancetta is an Italian bacon and a delicious ingredient used in many of that country’s dishes. Like fresh bacon, it’s simply pork belly cured with salt and seasonings, which is then rolled into a log and hung to dry for a couple weeks. It’s typically thinly sliced or diced and sauteed, then combined with sauteed vegetables. Countless recipes begin with the gentle sauteing of onions and other aromatic vegetables; precede this step by sauteing diced pancetta, and you’ll add a layer of great complexity to the dish. The classic Roman dish spaghetti alla carbonara is made with sauteed pancetta and eggs. Chunks of pancetta can be added to stews, beans, and soups. Cabbage and Brussels sprouts are superb when sauteed with pancetta. Marcella Hazan, in The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, notes that pancetta’s “savory-sweet unsmoked flavor has no wholly satisfactory substitute.” She suggests rolling it up in veal scaloppine, then sauteing the rolls in butter and serving them with a tomato sauce, or sauteing it with spring peas (a traditional preparation) or braising Boston lettuce with it.
The traditional process of curing and drying pancetta takes about 3 weeks, but variations here are a matter of taste. You can reduce the drying time to 2 or 3 days, or eliminate it altogether (the pancetta will still taste delicious when cooked). You could also choose not to roll it and use it as is, treating it as you would fresh bacon.–Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn
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Homemade Pancetta Recipe
- Quick Glance
- 30 M
- 21 D
- Makes 4 pounds
- One 5-pound slab pork belly, skin removed
- For the dry cure
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 teaspoons (14 grams) pink salt (see Note)
- 1/4 cup ( 50 grams) Kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons (26 grams) dark brown sugar
- 4 tablespoons (40 grams) coarsely ground black pepper, divided
- 2 tablespoons (10 grams) juniper berries, crushed with the bottom of a small saute pan
- 4 bay leaves, crumbled
- 1 teaspoon (4 grams) freshly grated nutmeg
- 4 or 5 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1. Trim the pork belly so that its edges are neat and square.
- 2. Combine the garlic, pink salt, kosher salt, dark brown sugar, juniper berries, bay leaves, nutmeg, thyme, and half the black pepper in a bowl and mix thoroughly so that the pink salt is evenly distributed. Rub the mixture all over the pork belly to give it a uniform coating over the entire surface.
- 3. Place the belly in a 2-gallon resealable plastic bag or in a covered nonreactive container just large enough to hold it. Refrigerate for 7 days. Without removing the pork belly from the bag, rub the pork belly to redistribute the seasonings and flip it over every other day—a process called overhauling.
- 4. After 7 days, check the pork belly for firmness. If it feels firm at its thickest point, it’s cured. If it still feels squishy, refrigerate it with the cure for 1 to 2 more days.
- 5. Remove the poor belly from the bag or container, rinse it thoroughly under cold water, and pat it dry. Sprinkle the meat side with the remaining black pepper. Starting from a long side, roll up the pork belly tightly, as you would a thick towel, and tie it very tightly with butcher’s string at 1- to 2-inch intervals. It’s important that there are no air pockets inside the roll. In other words, it can’t be too tightly rolled. Alternately, the pancetta can be left flat, wrapped in cheesecloth, and hung to dry for 5 to 7 days.
- 6. Using the string to suspend it, hang the rolled pancetta in a cool, humid place to dry for 2 weeks. The ideal conditions are 50°F to 60°F (8°C to 15°C) with 60 percent humidity, but a cool, humid basement works fine, as will most any place that’s out of the sun. (I often hang mine in our kitchen next to the hanging pans on either side of the stove.) Humidity is important: If your pancetta begins to get hard, it’s drying out and should be wrapped and refrigerated. The pancetta should be firm but pliable, not hard. Because pancetta isn’t meant to be eaten raw, the drying isn’t as critical a stage as it is for items such as prosciutto or dry-cured sausages. But drying pancetta enhances its texture, intensifies its flavor, and helps it to last longer.
- 7. After drying, the pancetta can be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for 3 weeks or more, or frozen for up to 4 months. Freezing makes it easier to slice thin.
Note: Pink salt, a curing salt with nitrite, is called by different names and sold under various brand names, such as tinted cure mix or T.C.M., DQ Curing Salt, and Insta Cure #1. The nitrite in curing salts does a few special things to meat: It changes the flavor, preserves the meat’s red color, prevents fats from developing rancid flavors, and prevents many bacteria from growing.
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Homemade Pancetta Recipe © 2005 Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. Photo © 2007 Kevin D. Weeks. All rights reserved.