What is Pancetta?
We often get ask about this tasty loveliness, the cured pork belly that originated in Italy and thankfully has spread across the world.
It is essentially a marinated and cured Pork Belly, you may have seen it in the supermarket sliced super thin and is often wrapped around a chicken breast or asparagus.
Pork Belly is of course one of the most versatile and awesome cuts of pork, this once cheap cut was made expensive due to demand, during the last recession and made cult like status in pubs and restaurants with a price tag to match. However this little beauty is marinaded with herbs and spices, like fennel seed, black pepper, salt of course and sodium nitrite to reduce the water content and prevent botulism and then slowly cured to dry and add a deep flavour.
You may have seen Pancetta rolled up or in flat pieces there doesn't tend to be a flavour difference, but in Northern Italy the rolled variety is more prominent and sliced paper thin to be put on a charcuterie board, or go on a sandwich, the flat type is more common in central and southern italy where it is cut into lardons and added to numerous dishes to enhance the flavour.
Which is really for me the main point of pancetta, i describe Pancetta as ‘bacon on acid’ its flavour is salty, beautifully fatty and full of herb flavours. What a perfect base to a casserole, soup or fried and put on top of a salad. We tend to use pancetta a lot at Christmas to pimp up sprouts but for me it should be utilised throughout the year in all its beautiful flavour adding guises.
You may associate Pancetta as the ingredient you add to Spaghetti Carbonara, and you can of course use it but in fact traditionally this dish calls for Guanciale which is pork cheeks, which are cured in the same way as Pancetta but has much more fat, in fact 50-60% fat, which is what you are looking for in this beautiful but simple dish, and certainly not bacon, it just doesn't have the depth of flavour required.
A note of caution that what the supermarket describes as Pancetta is not! They slice it super thin as I mentioned earlier to wrap round your chicken breast but there are none of the beautiful herbs added and it is no more dry cured than bacon.
Proper Pancetta is marinated for 7-10 days in salt and spices then air dried at 22c and 80% humidity for 24-36 hours and then further dry cured at 10-12c and 70% humidity for a further 4-5 weeks to ensure the available water contained in the pork is low enough that bacteria cannot grow. This also means you can eat it raw/cured, where as the pancetta sold in the supermarket is really just super thin bacon which of course cannot be eaten raw, the available water is far too high and needs to be cooked to make it safe. Let me tell you, eating proper raw/cured pancetta as part of a charcuterie board is beautiful, soft full of flavour and has a creamy finish...stunning, it has a whiff of parma ham style flavour about it.
You can make Pancetta at home and it is as simple as making bacon. It just requires a little more patience waiting for the available water to reduce sufficiently that you can eat it raw/cured and it gives it great shelf life. Once made it will keep for months if sealed in a tupperware container in your fridge and of course it freezes brilliantly. We created a home curing kit to make bacon and pancetta at home and all you need do is add pork.