Like bacon here in the States, the Italian meat “pancetta” comes from either the belly- or side cut of the pig. It is rubbed with a mixture of sea salt and curing mix (94% salt and 6% sodium nitrite), stored in a container for 12-15 hours, rinsed of excess salts, seasoned, and hung to dry for 3-5 months.
But to simply dismiss it as ‘Italian Bacon’ is an insult.
Key Differences between pancetta and Bacon
While smoke is valued for both its flavor and curative properties in making bacon, the process of making pancetta involves no smoke at all. The belly is simply rubbed on both sides with the salts and stored in a container.
In that 12-15 hour time span, the miracle of osmosis takes place: in an effort to meet equilibrium, water is pulled from the cells of the meat and into the salt.
While in the salt, that water is seasoned, and then makes its way back into the meat until there’s equal moisture in both the salt and the meat.
Salt also helps denature the meat’s proteins and stave off bacteria, but we’ve already talked enough science for a food blog, so let’s just leave it at that.
Bacon gets its flavor from both the salt with which it is cured and the wood used to smoke it. Hard woods like hickory and oak are valued because of the way compounds in the smoke actually color and flavor the meat; soft woods… not so much.
Too much resin, and that translates to a very bitter, piney flavor that can overpower and ruin just about anything.
At any rate, the primary non-pork flavor you find in bacon comes from the smoke used to help cure it.
However, pancetta’s flavor comes from the myriad of herb- and spice options available to the person preparing it. Things like black pepper, garlic, and fennel; some craftsmen will go the extra mile, and add hot pepper and paprika for extra kick and color.
In short, where bacon’s preparation seems more geared toward achieving a familiar flavor, pancetta’s seems more varied, and is just as dependent upon region as anything else.
While bacon is always stored and sliced as the slab cut itself, pancetta is not. Though from the same cuts, pancetta is typically rolled into a log, tied, and hung. The end result is a round cut filled with concentric swirls of fat and meat.
If the cut comes from the belly, the appearance will be mostly white with streaks of meat; from the side, and those streaks of meat are progressively more pronounced.
Despite being smoked and cured, bacon must still be cooked before it is eaten. Not so with pancetta – it can be served freshly sliced from the base as part of a nice antipasto or charcuterie presentation.
That said, there’s no harm done in cooking it, either. Like bacon, it is completely flexible regarding which cooking method you use, be it sliced thin and crisped in an oven to go with a side of eggs, or cut thick, cubed, and rendered down for a true carbonara.
Pancetta is a wonderful, under-utilized selection of Italian meat that has somehow fallen behind in popularity (stores and delis typically move more salami and prosciutto), but try it once and you’ll agree it deserves to stand in a class all of its own.