There’s something really outstanding about a pig’s belly. The short of it is probably that it’s outstanding because it’s mostly pork fat, which in and of itself is an inarguable point of greatness. The longer answer though, is a study in versatility. Cured and smoked, pork belly makes bacon, one of the Earth’s finest substances. Cooked fresh over gentle heat, it becomes what might be the king of all braising cuts. Ground up and mixed with pork butt or beef, it adds the necessary fatty depth to pretty much any sausage. But perhaps most beautifully, when dry cured and aged for a few weeks it creates pancetta, bacon’s Italian cousin and an arguable reason for life itself.
Although pancetta is basically just aged, unsmoked bacon, pancetta is definitely not bacon. Bacon is all working class cred, something thrown into a blackened pan or piled on some burger or breakfast muffin to deliciously crispy fatty ends. Pancetta is like Frank Pentangeli’s Sicilian cousin in Godfather II—a quiet force from the old country brought in to keep the family straight… if the family in question is cured pork belly and it’s various iterations. Because of this, pancetta will never enjoy the folk hero status of its smoky cousin. Think about it, if Homer Simpson would have drooled “Mmmm… pancetta” The Simpsons would have been borderline unwatchable. And if the national McBurger Barn chains ever start marketing pancetta poppers to pasty fat customers in fanny packs it’s probably a sign of the apocalypse.
No. Bacon is as American as… well, bacon in all of it’s smoky delicious fatty, crispy excess. And pancetta just isn’t, and never the twain shall meet. And maybe that’s what’s so great about it. The pork belly is a generous beast in all of its permutations.
Homemade pancetta is a game changer in your food, a thing of truly nuanced beauty. Maybe it’s because you can dictate the flavors in the cure. Maybe it’s because you then know those flavors are there and so you can actually taste them better. Or maybe it’s the completely self controlled drying time that gives you a texture and toothsome bite that even the greatest bacon can never achieve. Whatever it is, home curing pancetta is one of those things that, like homemade stock, instantly makes all of your food better. Add it to a braise and you immediately have greater depth and richness. Wrap it around a smoked chicken breast, a grilled pork loin, or better yet a roasted rabbit saddle and your meat will be moister, more chickeny, porky, rabbity and altogether better. Add it to pasta along with a few other things and you have two of my favorite quick dinners: Spaghetti Carbonara and Bucatini all’Amatriciana.
I cured off this pancetta with the usual salt, pepper and pink salt, as well as lots of bay, thyme, garlic, juniper and a little allspice and clove. Then I air dried it in my wine fridge/ curing chamber for about 17 days. Its texture is wonderfully dense and its flavors are intensely porky but also somehow nuanced—sort of like a piggy version of a really good glass of grappa. The first hit you get is cured, aged pork and pork fat, followed by the herbaciousness of the thyme and bay and then the finish of the cloves and juniper. But maybe my favorite thing about it is how easy it is to make—get a pork belly, rub it with cure and toss it in the fridge for ten days, then roll it and hang it to age for another two weeks. Really, the only skill it requires is the patience to let it do its thing quietly in the corner until it’s ready for prime time.
Here are two of my favorite things to do with pancetta. Both take about as long to make as boiling a good pot of water and cooking off some dry pasta. Both taste like they take much longer, especially if your pancetta is the homemade stuff.
Pancetta, sliced and julienned
A few egg yolks
A little cream
Salt and pepper
Boil some water for the pasta. Cook off your pancetta in a pan, add your onions and cook in the rendered fat until the pancetta is browned and the onions are soft. Mix the eggs, parm and cream in a bowl with some black pepper. Boil your pasta. Toss it in the bacon and onions and pork fat. Remove from the heat and add the egg mixture. Toss to coat evenly, taste and season. Eat the best version of bacon and eggs ever created in ten minutes.
This recipe is traditionally made with guanciale, and if you’ve cured some of that then by all means use it. But I’ll take home cured pancetta over store bought guanciale if that’s the choice.
Pancetta, sliced and julienned
Red onion, julienned
A can of San Marzano tomatoes
A few cloves of garlic
Red pepper flake
Salt and pepper
Boil some water for the pasta. Cook off your pancetta, add your onions, a little red pepper and then garlic and cook in the rendered fat until the pancetta is browned, the onions are soft and the garlic is no longer raw. Crush the tomatoes by hand and add them as well as half your basil. Cook it down for about 30 minutes. Cook your pasta. Throw the rest of your basil in the sauce. Taste. Season. Mix with the pasta. Add a little olive oil and cheese and more red pepper at the end if you like.