Pancetta is frequently called the Italian version of American bacon. Although the meats come from the same part of the pig and are similar in appearance, the ways in which they are cured and seasoned are different, as well as the traditional ways in which they are prepared and served.
Both pancetta and bacon are cut from the pig's belly, so they are heavily marbled with streaks of fat, and both must be cooked before consumption. The main difference between the two is the curing methods. Pancetta is cured with salt or a combination of aromatic ingredients and spices such as fennel, nutmeg and pepper, rolled tight to keep the spices in place, and dried but not smoked. The lack of smoking gives it a milder flavor than bacon. The drying time for pancetta ranges from weeks to months, depending on the intensity of flavor desired. Bacon is cured with salt and flavorful spices and then smoked with different kinds of wood, of which maple and apple are common.
In Italy, pancetta is normally sold in slab form, with a thick layer of fat on one side. In other countries, including the US, it is traditionally cut thin and rolled into a pinwheel from the short side so the layers of lean meat and fat alternate in the spiral. Slab pancetta is customarily sold in large pieces and diced or chopped for cooking, and the rolled type is cut into thin circles as needed. Both forms of pancetta can be successfully frozen for several months if double-wrapped in plastic wrap and foil.
Cooking with Pancetta
Pancetta adds a rich pork essence to dishes without imparting the smoky flavor of bacon. It is not usually served as a breakfast side dish but crisply fried, thinly sliced rounds of pancetta make a good burger topping and transform chicken breasts into a tasty entrée when paired with a marinara sauce and slice of fresh mozzarella. Dice and fry pancetta to create pork croutons that add texture and flavor to Caesar salad, risotto, pasta dishes, soups and omelettes. Gourmet pizza toppings frequently include crunchy rounds or bits of fried pancetta.
Slab or cured bacon can be substituted for pancetta. Blanch the bacon in boiling water before frying it to remove as much of the smoky taste as possible. Lean pork belly or salt pork are also acceptable pancetta substitutes.
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