Traditional American-style slab bacon is a wonderful and versatile ingredient, but its distinctively sweet and smoky flavor is too robust for many dishes. That's why many recipes call instead for pancetta, its Italian cousin. Pancetta is dry-cured like jerky or the better-known prosciutto, so it can be eaten without cooking, but it is also widely used as a cooked ingredient.
Pancetta vs. Bacon
American-style bacon is made from the pig's belly, and it's typically cured in a brine or dry mixture containing salt and sugar. Once the belly is removed from its sweet and salty cure it's hot-smoked, or sometimes double-smoked in first a cold smoker and then a hot smoker. American bacon is cured, but requires cooking for safe consumption. Pancetta follows a different process, curing the pork belly -- pancia, in Italian -- in salt with spices and herbs rather than the American-style sweet cure. Once salted, the pancetta is hung to dry-cure for a period of months. It can be dried as a flat slab, or rolled and tied into a cylinder.
Once cured, pancetta is safe to eat without any further cooking. When uncooked, its flavor is mild and aromatic, with the clear notes of any herbs or spices used during the curing process. It also has faintly sweet and sour notes to its aroma, like prosciutto. It's best when shaved into paper-thin slices, which melt easily on the tongue and minimize the toughness of the dry-cured meat. The slices can be served on a platter with other cured meats, cheeses, olives and similarly pungent finger foods, or incorporated into sandwiches with other meats.
The idea of eating uncooked pork can seem strange to Americans raised with the spectre of trichinosis. In reality, many traditional uncooked pork products are perfectly safe because of the effects of salt and drying. Bacteria, molds and other pathogens need a certain amount of moisture to survive, just as humans do. When the curing process reduces the moisture in foods below that level, those cured items can be stored and eaten safely for extended periods. It is still possible for pancetta to become contaminated with pathogens because of improper handling or cross-contamination from other items, so pregnant women and those with pre-existing health conditions should only eat it when it's cooked.
Like any other type of bacon, pancetta can also be cooked, and it's an important ingredient in many well-known dishes. Thinly-sliced pancetta is crisped and crumbled into pasta carbonara, and richly-flavored saltimbocca is made by frying a thin veal cutlet with a slice of pancetta on its back. Pancetta is also diced and rendered to make the starting point for a number of classic Italian soups and sauces, lending a richly porky flavor to the finished product.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- Garde Manger: The Art and Science of the Cold Kitchen; Culinary Institute of America
- Delallo: Italian Pork Cuts -- Culatello, Coppa, Pancetta, Guanciale & Lardo
- Pancetta.com.au: Pancetta
- Photo Credit Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Getty Images