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Homemade Pancetta

Five pounds of fresh pork belly

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.

Pork belly and basic cure

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.

The Math:

  • 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.

Corner of skin left on for hanging purposes

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.

Black peppercorns and coriander seeds toasting in a cast iron pan

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.

Delicious cook's snack

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.

About halfway through the application of the spices

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.

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14 Comments

  1. mochapj says:

    Have you checked Malabar Super Spice (in Burlington) for pink salt?

    I get most of my curing supplies (bungs and such) from them and I imagine they’d probably have it. I don’t use pink salt, so I’m not 100%, but it’s worth a try.

  2. foodwithlegs says:

    I do hear that Malabar carries pink salt but I am never in Burlington so I may end up just ordering some over the internet.

  3. Patrick says:

    I live in Kensington Market and will vouch for Casa Acoreana where you are purchasing your spices, this being said, I also support several local other merchants for this type of product. There are a number of fine places in Kensington for theses needs.

    I am simply pipping in to make sure you are aware of the best purveyor of specialty salts in Toronto (and probably North America for that matter…) is: Selsi Sea Rocks. They have a small store in the basement of the St. Lawrence Market. They seem to be revamping their website ( http://www.selsisearocks.com/ ), but presumably once it is up and running again, you will be able to order from them online. I am sure you could fire them a quick email with any inquiries, I have always found the staff to be friendly and knowledgeable.

    I look forward to following your pancetta adventure.

  4. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks for the suggestion, Patrick. I have sent Selsi Sea Rocks an email to see if they carry any curing salts.

    An aside: I have written about this distinction in previous posts but just to clarify when I refer to “pink salt” I mean the curing salt which contains sodium nitrite and which, when manufactured in the US, must be dyed pink for safety reasons. This is different form the pink salt that is usually from Hawaii or the Himalayas and is marketed with other fancy pants salts like Maldon and gray salt. (I have some that is fine enough to be perfect for popcorn.)

  5. Alan McKay says:

    Thanks for the conversion on the Readycure! I just picked up some for my next batch of bacon. I’ve always made it without nitrites but want to try it with to see what kind of difference it might make.

  6. foodwithlegs says:

    My pleasure, Alan. I’ve been working on a utility that will make the process of adapting recipes for use with Readycure even easier.

    I imagine the difference you’ll notice first is the colour. Bacon made with sodium nitrite will retain that pink-red colour even when cooked. The flavour is slightly different as well. My principal motivation for using sodium nitrite is the extended refrigerator shelf life–makes it easier to only eat a bit when you don’t have to worry about finishing it before it spoils.

  7. [...] pancetta post number one discussed the cured pork belly that is rolled into the familiar jelly roll shape is called pancetta [...]

  8. guymistery says:

    If you go to Basspro they carry a product called L.E.M. Products Meat Cure, it has a content of sodium nitrite at 6.25%. Its only $2.50 for 4 ozs.

  9. foodwithlegs says:

    guymistery: Thanks for the tip. I’m not surprised that Basspro Shops is a source for an American product that is difficult to find in Canada. I also consider them the best place to buy Lodge cast iron cookware in the GTA. Incidentally, I need some lubricant for my L.E.M. manual grinder so I’ll have to make a trip to Vaughn in the near future and will look for the meat cure.

  10. [...] this year I made pancetta from scratch (part 1, part 2).  In the posts and in-person conversations about this project I have mentioned that I was [...]

  11. This is super helpful. I’m going to be making bacon in the next couple of days and was trying to locate curing salts. I should have known you would have the answer.

    Thanks!

  12. foodwithlegs says:

    My pleasure, Tonya. Always glad to help another person join the pork-curing club. Look forward to reading about how your bacon turns out.

  13. Thomas says:

    I have a pork belly curing now for about 9 days however it does not seem to be firming up as I have read it should. Any suggestions? Thanks

  14. foodwithlegs says:

    Hi Thomas,

    It’s been a while since I made the pancetta myself so only take this advice as a small part of your research.

    The meat should firm up as a sign that your cure has drawn water out of it. It’s a concern–but not a dealbreaker–if this hasn’t happened. I’d proceed with the recipe (and lots of caution) and err on the long side for how long it tells you to cure the meat and the low side for the humidity where you hang the belly.

    If you get in touch with Michael Ruhlman he might be able to lend some more expert advice. He often answers questions on twitter.

    Thanks for commenting and good luck with your project.

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