Italians love pancetta, and it's a staple in their kitchens. But in the U.S., pancetta is not nearly as popular — which is a shame, as this bacon-like product is a wonderful addition to many dishes. Pancetta is seasoned, salt-cured pork belly created in two forms: stesa (flat) or arrotolata (rolled). While it's often served thinly sliced in Italy, it's more commonly found cut into small cubes in the U.S. Pancetta can range from light pink to deep red in color, with a dense, silky texture. Its flavor is considered nutty, clean and a tad sweet. Before you try your hand cooking with pancetta, here are five things you should know.
1. Pancetta Isn't the Same as Prosciutto
Yes, they're both Italian words that start with a "p" and refer to a bacon-like product. But the two meats are very different. Pancetta, which comes from a pig's belly, is meat that is seasoned, then cured with salt. In the U.S., it's typically sold in fat cubes. Prosciutto comes from a pig's hind leg, or ham. And while it's also salt-cured, it's uncooked and sold in paper-thin slices. Pancetta has a rich, nutty flavor, while prosciutto tastes lighter and sweeter.
2. Pancetta Pairs Well With Pasta, Eggs, Oysters, Even Fruit Salsas
Just as a big, tannic pinot noir is the perfect complement to game birds and hearty stews such as beef bourguignon, pancetta is especially tasty when paired with certain foods. Pasta is a natural. In fact, pancetta is the star ingredient in Bucatini all'Amatriciana, a famous Roman dish with tomatoes, onions, Pecorino Romano cheese and red pepper flakes. Crisped pancetta makes a tasty addition to salads and soups, too.
But pancetta also works well with less-obvious dishes such as poached eggs, oysters and Brussels sprouts. And since rich, salty foods pair well with sweet flavors, you can use pancetta to create inventive fruity salsas, such as one combining crisp-fried pancetta with jalapeños, garlic, cilantro, chopped strawberries and chopped pineapple. That salsa is great with grilled meats and seafoods.
Italians typically add pancetta to recipes after first cooking it in a pan, says Judy Witts Francini, founder of Divina Cucina, which offers online Italian cooking classes and culinary tours. "This releases some of the pork fat to flavor the dish," she says via email. "When making a pasta sauce, it is removed from the pan after cooking and placed back in later to maintain its crispness."
3. Pancetta Can Be Eaten Raw
While pancetta is generally viewed as a raw meat that needs to be cooked, it can be eaten as is since it's sold fully cured. People who eat raw pancetta generally purchase it thinly sliced, like prosciutto. You can still eat cubed pancetta, but it will be tougher to chew than the thinly sliced version. As a safety precaution, make sure the pancetta doesn't look or smell funky before chowing down. Improperly stored pancetta may be unsafe to eat.
4. You Can (Sort of) Substitute Bacon for Pancetta or Prosciutto
Many cooks in the U.S. use bacon, pancetta and prosciutto interchangeably, and the dishes often don't suffer as a result. But you need to keep a few things in mind before you swap one out for the other. Pancetta and bacon have the most in common, as they're both made from pork belly and typically need to be cooked before being eaten. The correct substitution depends upon whether you're looking for the saltiness found in pancetta or the smoky flavors found in bacon. Prosciutto, in contrast, is made from a pig's leg (the ham), which gives it a different flavor. It's also thinly sliced and made to be eaten raw. Thus, it doesn't work as well as a substitute in dishes needing a particular flavor, or in dishes that will be cooked.
"If you don't have anything else to use, yes, you can substitute bacon or prosciutto [for pancetta]," Francini says. "But the flavor is different. And don't substitute if you are serving an Italian. That would be a sacrilege."
5. You Can Make Your Own Pancetta
If you want to try creating your own pancetta, budget several weeks. First, season a piece of pork belly with salt. That's all you really need, but most pancetta producers add various spices and aromatics to incorporate particular flavors. Common additions include black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, juniper berries, coriander and fennel seeds (Leite's Culinara has detailed directions on making your own pancetta).
Once the meat is seasoned, refrigerate until firm — usually seven to 10 days. Once firm, wash the pork and brush off the seasonings. Next, add pepper to re-season the meat, then roll into a cylinder and place in a casing. Tie the casing with twine in one-inch intervals. Finally, hang the pancetta in a cool, dry spot to cure. This process can take as little as several days, but more typically takes two to three weeks. Once it's ready, slice, cook and enjoy.