Remember the sitcom episodes when the trouble-making, bad ass cousin would come to visit? All the formulaic sitcoms from my childhood in the eighties had one. Well, pancetta is bacon’s Italian cousin. Pancetta does have the salt and pork of bacon but instead of being smoked it is air dried and therefore acquires the slightly funky taste unique to fermented sausage. Yes, I see that the analogy is turned inside out because one of the usual foibles of the out-of-town cousin was that he DID smoke but luckily this is a blog about food not Full House.
As Marcella Hazan notes in the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, “pancetta, from pancia, the Italian for belly, is the distinctive Italian version of bacon.” Hazan goes on to note the differences between pancetta arrotolata which is dried rolled in a log shape and pancetta stesa which is hung in a flat slab to dry. I have cured (cinnamon version) and smoked my own bacon before but now it’s time to try pancetta. I haven’t decided whether I’ll roll mine or leave it flat.
Pork belly is becoming a much easier ingredient to find but when it shows up in supermarket butcher cases it is usually pre-sliced at the thickness of thick-cut bacon or in roughly pound-size chunks appropriate for roasting or braising. If you want to roll your pancetta (as I think I might) you need a larger piece of belly in the four to six pound range. At the No Frills where I often find esoteric pork parts Friday seems to be cutting day so the best to ask for a large chunk of belly.
I used Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie as my main guide for this adventure. I did look at other sources because I realise that without that variation this post (and others about curing meat) might as well be a link to the Charcuterie page on amazon and a few tightly focused pictures. Chow has a great tutorial on making pancetta that is particularly useful for visual instructions on rolling and tying the belly and Food in My Beard is the best of the blog-based options for pancetta recipes.
The basic cure in Charcuterie calls for 50 grams kosher salt, 26 grams brown sugar, and 12 grams of pink salt and various spices for a five pound piece of belly. That’s an approximate ratio of kosher salt to pink salt of four to one. On his website, in the pancetta post, Ruhlman has a basic cure recipe that calls for 450 grams kosher salt, 225 grams of sugar, and 50 grams of pink salt. This is obviously a larger quantity meant to be stored and used for multiple batches of cured meats but also reduces the amount of pink salt by a bit more than half so that there is now nine parts kosher salt to one part pink salt. With the health concerns associated with sodium nitrite I’m happy to use the updated version.
Because I’m working with Canada Compound’s Readycure product (that is one percent sodium nitrite) and the recipe calls for pink salt (that is six and a quarter percent sodium nitrite) there will be some math involved in adapting the recipe. Thanks are again due to Ruhlman for publishing recipes with metric weight measurements because I’m pretty sure if I had to do this math with decimal parts of a tablespoon I would have become frustrated to the point where the belly just ended up being braised immediately.
- 6 g pink salt contains 0.375 g sodium nitrite (6 * .0625) and 5.625 g salt (sodium chloride)
- We need 37.5 g ReadyCure to get that much sodium nitrite (1% instead of 6.25%)
- That means reducing the kosher salt by 31.5 g (the difference in salt filler between 6 g pink salt and 37.5 g ReadyCure)
- Converted recipe becomes: 12.5 g kosher salt, 26 g sugar, and 37.5 g ReadyCure (unless you are absolutely certain that what you have is Canada Compound’s ReadyCure that contains 1% sodium nitrite do not use this much curing salt.)
This conversion is a little cumbersome but also presents the drawback that we have substituted the finer filler salt in ReadyCure for a large portion of the kosher. Because they are measured by weight there is still the same amount of sodium chloride but I’m concerned that the finer salt might act differently in curing the pork. This is good motivation for finding a source of true pink salt.
A step in the process that further distinguishes pancetta from American bacon is that the skin has to be removed–especially if you want to make the rolled version. Skinning pork belly is like filleting fish in that it is a task that gets a lot easier with experience. The only tips I can offer are to be very careful, make sure your knife is very sharp and if pull the skin firmly in your left hand so that the knife gets closer to the skin and therefore sacrifices less of the valuable fat.
This egullet post seems to indicate that for hanging pancetta stesa the skin serves to reinforce the string holes and distribute some of the load. To keep this option open I left a square of skin on the belly at the thickest corner. I gave the removed skin a small dose of the curing mix and will save it in the freezer for future experiments.
Pancetta is also distinguished from bacon by all of the savoury ingredients that go into the cure. I used four minced garlic cloves, 20 g black peppercorns, 5 g coriander seeds, 5 or 6 crumbled bay leaves, six or seven good grinds from a whole nutmeg, the leaves from five or so springs of thyme, and 10 g of juniper berries. The black peppercorns and coriander seeds should be toasted and lightly crushed in a mortar and pestle. All spices should be fresh (versus stale) but I have found that juniper berries are particularly variable in their quality. So far, my preferred source is the bulk spice and coffee store on the northeast corner of Baldwin and Augusta in Kensington Market. The juniper berries should also be lightly crushed.
Before applying the cure the belly needs be squared. This is so that when it is rolled a relatively flat surface is exposed to the air at each end. I tossed the cuttings in the leftover spices to make myself an excellent cook’s snack but this wastage has me leaning even further towards the slab pancetta.
The salt, sugar, and curing salt mix goes on first, on both sides and the garlic, herbs, and spices go on next. Roughly even distribution is important and you want to be sure the drier ingredients like the bay is in contact with the meat but this can, to some extent, be corrected once the pork is in the curing container. The whole chunk of belly goes into a resealable bag (extra large Ziploc bags are great for this) or non-reactive (like glass) dish covered in plastic wrap and then into the fridge for five to nine days, flipped over and massaged once a day or so.
I have found that no matter how carefully I seal the bag the fridge begins to smell of curing pork and spices after a couple days. I think this is delicious but can see why some would not so if you have an extra fridge or a bar fridge, that may be the place for your curing pancetta. I’ll do another post with more information on hanging the pancetta to dry and the finished results.