I know you have all been waiting with palpable anticipation for this, the conclusion to my pancetta adventure. After eight days in the refrigerator covered in salt and spices, on March 6, I rinsed the cure from my pancetta-to-be and considered the biggest variable of homemade pancetta: to roll or not to roll?
As pancetta post number one discussed the cured pork belly that is rolled into the familiar jelly roll shape is called pancetta arrotolata in Italian and if it is left as a flat slab it is called pancetta stesa.
Predictably, I think this is an ideal situation for a pros-and-cons, pancetta showdown.
Rolled pros: When finished drying and sliced the slices have the familiar and attractive swirl-of-pork-fat pattern; a lower ratio of surface area to volume means that the belly takes longer to dry so may develop more intense flavour; vaguely more authentic in that the grandmothers in more Italian villages would roll their pancetta but it is by no means unanimous; the pepper goes on the surface that is rolled into centre so it is more likely to stay with the meat.
Rolled cons: It is difficult to roll the belly tightly enough to prevent air pockets that can host dangerous microbes that thrive in a dark, moist, meaty environment; the belly needs to be trimmed more closely so that when rolled the meat cylinder has a relatively flat top and bottom–this causes waste; the pancetta should stay rolled throughout the process so it is difficult to observe how the centre of the roll is progressing.
Slab pros: More lean meat is exposed to the air (and observation) so it is easier to judge progress by colour; easier to thread twine (or a hook) through on corner of a slab than it is to carefully tie a roll; more easily divided for freezing.
Slab cons: Because it is supported by twine at only one corner stretches to become thinner and diamond-shaped; more surface area is exposed to microbes that can live with more light and air (like mold).
Okay, so, I realise that by just comparing the pros it looks like the rolled should have an edge but the rolled cons scared me a bit so I went the slab route. Luckily, I have access to my parents’ slightly temperature-controlled, basement cold room and managed to find a spot between a stack of over-sized mixing bowls and the slow cooker for hanging the pancetta.
For the first week of hanging the cold room was in the mid-to-high forties (on the olde tyme fahrenheit scale) with relative humidity in the low-sixties. This is a bit cooler than ideal (50° – 60°F) and a bit more humid than perfect (60%). If these variables are going to fall outside of the ideal range I think it’s best that one is high while the other is low. My non-professional sense is that a colder temperature will inhibit mold growth that the higher humidity would encourage.
The post-cure, pre-hanging weight of my piece of pork belly was 1,836 grams. For the first week the colour changed less noticeably than it did during the week of curing. The aroma was strongly dominated by black pepper with more subtle notes of salt and pork fat. At the end of the curing time (before being rinsed) the herbs and spices had combined to create an odour that was unshakably reminiscent of cheap grocery store Italian salad dressing. Needless to say, I was happy to have this characteristic fade and mellow.
The pancetta’s time spent hanging in the cold room coincided with some very warm March weather. By day 9 (March 16) the temperature in the cold room was up to 50°F and the humidity had climbed to 68%. I suspect that this higher humidity (snow melts and the ground surrounding the cold room is damper) and climbing temperatures (along with slaughter schedules, of course) are why autumn is the traditional time for air-drying meat. The weight had dropped to 1,633 grams or 11% of the weight on day 1.
On day 9 black pepper was still the dominant aroma and I needed to get within four or five inches to smell it at all. This changed drastically around day 11. The temperature had climbed another couple of degrees into the fifties and suddenly spots of white mold began to appear. Yes, mold on uncooked meat. This is not an experiment-ending catastrophe but the explanation why will have to wait a few sentences.
The aroma was now much stronger–easily detectable just by opening the cold room door–and dominated by the funky, sweet, and salty aroma that I associate with prosciutto. Surprisingly, the aromatics from the cure were now more noticeable on the nose–especially the bay and juniper berries.
By day 13 the mold had spread a bit, the funky aroma was a touch more complex–but definitely not spoiled or rancid–and I decided I had pressed my luck far enough. The slab came down, weighed in at 1, 566 grams (14.7% off its weight when the drying process began) and was duly photographed from dozens of angles.
You want to know about this mold right? The general consensus seems to be that white mold is okay while anything more exotic in colour (green, blue, orange, grey, or black) is bad and pancetta that grows this type should be trimmed or discarded. The best discussion about mold growth can be found in the comments section of the Chow pancetta tutorial. I understand that the mold-is-okay endorsements in the home-curing discussions are more along the lines of “well, I’ve been eating it for years and it hasn’t hurt me” than “I’m a licensed doctor and I (backed by years of medical research) fully endorse this as a safe thing to eat” but I attribute that more to our system of legal liability in North America than anything else.
Also, it really does resemble what can be found on the outside of dry, fermented sausage. We could call it a bloom or white patina but the fact remains that it is caused by a fungus and is, as far as I can tell, entirely safe.
As a precaution I wiped the white spots with dilluted vinegar (50:50 with water). I had worried that I’d be able to taste the vinegar after cooking the pancetta but this isn’t the case. The worst side effect of wiping off the mold was that a moderate amount of black pepper was knocked off with it. Because the mold didn’t appear until day 11 and was fairly limited I didn’t bother with the vinegar treatment until my pancetta had finished hanging two days later.
After a night of refrigeration in a re-sealable bag the pancetta has an intensely pungent, fermented meaty aroma. Collecting and concentrating the delicious smell of cured meats is one of Ziploc’s greatest parlour tricks. Very similar to dry Italian sausages with noticeable hints of black pepper and bay.
At this time of year when good salad greens or arugula are hard to find I think the best way to showcase homemade pancetta (or any tasty member of the bacon family) is with pasta carbonara. A very simple combination of al dente spaghetti with eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, lots of freshly cracked black pepper, and crispy pancetta. No cream, no butter, and no vegetables.
The taste of the pancetta is spectacular. Intensely porky with a moderate note of salt, robust black pepper and the complexity of the herbs and spices in the cure. If I were tasting it blind I don’t think I could pick out the individual voices (nutmeg, juniper berries, thyme, bay, or garlic) but I can definitely hear the choir. The texture when crisped in a pan is very good–toothsome enough for interest but also melting in the way that only pork fat can–but I suspect that a higher-quality pork belly would yield even better results on this front. Which, of course, is an excellent reason to repeat this experiment.