Pancetta, also known as Italian bacon, is taken from the belly of the pig. It is dry cured with curing salt, often with the addition of a variety of herbs and spices, then rolled and hung dry for a couple of weeks. Its pungent taste is the perfect base for sauces, soups, stews and casseroles. It’s often sliced thinly or chopped into cubes, then sautéed to add an impactful layer of flavour to many dishes. The addition of smoke to the pancetta gives a further dimension to the flavour profile.
Safety is paramount when curing meat. Firstly, always use the best quality of meat you can find. Not only will it taste better, but its likely to preserve and maintain its flavour for longer. It’s worth the investment. This recipe for pancetta has been created using top quality pork from our favourite online butcher – http://www.jl-butchers.co.uk. Secondly, make sure your hands, any utensils or work surfaces used throughout the process are clean, and the environment in which you are drying and curing are appropriate (as outlined in the recipe below).
Curing salt is readily available online. Ensure that you take great care in measuring quantities of the salt when using it. Curing salt contains nitrates, so needs to be treated with care.
For this recipe, the finished pancetta needs to be cooked, it cannot be eaten raw. The drying stage for pancetta is not as crucial as for cured meats such as salamis or ham. However, the drying period detailed in the recipe (duration of a couple of weeks) will certainly help enhance the flavour of the end product. Not only this, but it will also assist in ensuring the meat lasts longer. Cut back the drying time to a few days if you want a less intense flavour.
If you are new to curing and cold smoking, our best advice is to spend some valuable time researching before taking the plunge. There are plenty of very good websites and forums online which offer sound advice for beginners. For further reference and reading, plus a selection of great recipes, we recommend a book by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn called ‘Charcuterie’. It features lots of helpful and informative tips on the art of curing meats, and the recipes themselves serve as an inspiration to some of our own creations.
In terms of equipment, we like to use the Pro Q Cold Smoke Generator. An ingenious, low cost piece of kit that will last for many years if cared for properly. So easy to use, and lasts for hours and hours. We also smoke our meats, fish, nuts and cheese inside another ProQ product – our Frontier Smoker, it’s capacity is ideal for cold smoking all sorts of foods.
- 2 kilograms pork belly
- 5 grams curing salt #1 (Prague powder)
- 30 grams coarsely ground black pepper
- 40 grams rock salt
- 20 grams dark brown sugar
- 8 grams juniper berries crushed
- 3 bay leaves crushed
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 3 large sage leaves, finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves minced
Start by trimming the belly so the edges are neat. Also remove the skin if it’s still intact.
Mix together all the ingredients of the cure, expect for half of the black pepper which you’ll need later. Now massage the mixture into the pork belly. Take some time to ensure the cure mixture covers the whole joint, over each and every surface and into all the crevices.
Put the pork into a zip lock bag, try to remove as much air as possible from the bag before zipping it up. It’ll need to go into the fridge for at least 7 days. Each day, toss and turn the contents of the bag, giving the pork a rub so that the cure has a chance to distribute over all the surfaces of the meat evenly (you don’t need to remove the pork from the bag at this stage). Lay the meat flat on a different side each day, alternating across the course of the week.
After seven days, check for firmness. You are looking for it to feel firm at the thickest part. Refrigerate for a further one or two days if it still feels a little soft.
Now remove the belly from the zip lock bag. Rinse thoroughly under cold water, and pat dry. Sprinkle evenly with the rest of the black pepper (this will deter flies from approaching the meat). Now roll the pancetta – start from the long side, and roll tightly so that there are no pockets of air. Tie it very tightly with butchers string.
You will need to hang the pancetta in a cool dry place for 2 weeks. Hang it longer if you want a more pungent flavour to the meat. Use the string to ensure its suspended in the air. Conditions are crucial – you are aiming for between 8 to 15 degrees C, or 50 to 60 degrees F, with humidity around 60%. If you have no access to a dry curing chamber, then a cool, humid basement would be fine, but make sure it’s out of the sun. An old fridge will work, so long as the temperature is controlled and that you have regular air flow. Or even a kitchen, close to a stove. Anywhere cool and dry.
Once cured, the pancetta should be firm but not pliable. If it starts to go hard, its drying out. If this happens wrap it up and put into the fridge.
Now that the pancetta has cured, get ready for the cold smoking process. If you prefer the pancetta not to be smoked, skip this stage.
Don’t choose a hot day to cold smoke. At high temperatures, especially if you are smoking for an extended period of time, bacteria will start to form on the food. That’s why winter is perfect for cold smoking. Light up the cold smoke generator, and simply smoke the pancetta for around 12 hours, longer if you are looking for a heavier flavour. Its important to let the meat rest once cold smoked, for around 24 hours (at least overnight), as the smoky flavour will need to mellow.
Vac packing the meat is the best way to store it. If not, keep in an air tight container. It’ll refrigerate for up to three weeks.