We’re continuing our Frequently Asked Questions series, where we answer the most often searched questions on the internet so that you won’t need to google each of them individually.
The star of today’s edition is pancetta, or, as Americans often call it, “Italian bacon.”
What is Pancetta?
Pancetta is a type of Italian cured meat product made from pork belly. It has a very delicate and smooth texture, with only slight chewiness. Gourmet-quality pancetta is melt-in-your-mouth silky.
The pancetta curing process lasts only about two months which is shorter than most Italian cured meats (prosciutto, for example, can take up to 12 months). The meat is first thoroughly cleaned, then salted and brined with a mixture that contains salt, ascorbate, nitrite, and various spices like black pepper, chilis, garlic, rosemary, and juniper.
Once the meat is extracted from the brine, it’s stuffed into the casing and left in a moderately warm environment somewhere between 24 to 36 hours to undergo necessary enzymatic reactions. If the pancetta is supposed to be smoked, it’s cold-smoked at this stage.
At last, the pancetta is left to cure for around four weeks in a moderately chill environment with high humidity levels. Once it’s deemed fully cured, it’s either packaged as is or, more commonly, cut into thin pieces. Uncut pancetta is more often found at butcher stores, while diced pancetta is a standard option for commercially packaged products.
Diced pancetta can come either in bacon-like stipes (pancetta Stresa) or wide circles (pancetta Arottolata).
What Does Pancetta Taste Like?
Pancetta has a robust flavor. It’s often described as “pure pork.”
The flavor profile is intensely meaty (it seems even professional chefs struggle to find an alternative to the word that fits) and savory, with a bit of spiciness from black pepper, which is the one spice that is used across all blends. The rest of the flavor profile is determined by the spices used in the brine: rosemary and juniper add herby, earthy, and woody undertones, while chilis and garlic amp up the spiciness level and add a bit of nuttiness. However, none of these flavor undertones are robust enough to overpower the overall savory pork flavor but rather accentuate it a bit, more present in aroma than in taste.
Due to the highly fatty composition, pancetta is very rich and buttery but not uncomfortably heavy or greasy.
Why is Pancetta so Salty?
Well, the most straightforward answer would be that it’s due to the curing process. But if you know a thing or two about your Italian cured meats, then you’d rightly point out that not all salt-cured meats have the same salty flavor. Indeed, prosciutto Crudo, Salchichon, or Lomo, for example, are often described as only moderately salty with even a slight sweetness to them.
One theory is that it’s because pancetta is both rubbed with salt and then brined in salty liquid, and the larger amount of salt used amplifies the overall saltiness. The second theory is that pancetta isn’t necessarily much saltier than other Italian cured meats, but since the slices tend to have a larger surface (especially the pancetta Arottolata), you simply get more salt per slice than with other salumi, so it feels saltier.
Pancetta vs. Bacon: is Pancetta Just Diced Bacon?
As it’s made from a similar cut of meat and there’s a lot of visual resemblance going on, pancetta got stuck with the label “Italian bacon” quite some time ago. Even now, when Italian cured meats are becoming a staple pantry product instead of a charcuterie novelty, the “is pancetta bacon” question is one of the most oft-googled.
And yes, it would be impossible to deny that the two share similarities, but pancetta is empathetically not bacon.
First of all, while pancetta may sometimes visually resemble bacon quite closely, its looks aren’t ubiquitous. It’s made exclusively from pork belly, so the overall color scheme will always stay the same: a deep and robust pink flesh with broad white stripes from fat. But the shades vary greatly: it may sometimes be the same rich red or a lighter, brighter pink. Similarly, diced pancetta Stresa resembles bacon, but pancetta Arottolata does not.
Second of all, the curing process is vastly different when it comes to these two:
- Pancetta is first salt-cured and then dried for an extended period of time. It may sometimes be smoked, but smoking generally isn’t a necessary step in the process;
- Bacon is cured for a much shorter period (around ten days compared to pancetta’s two months), and, unlike with pancetta, smoking is an essential step of the process. Bacon is a smoked meat product; that’s its entire point.
These differences may not seem like much at first, but they’re instrumental in creating both products' distinct flavor profiles. While the pancetta is savory and meaty like bacon, due to the prolonged curing process, it also has a purer, richer pork flavor. On the other hand, bacon has a deeper but less meaty flavor, overtaken with characteristic smoky and earthy flavor notes.
Are Pancetta and Prosciutto the Same?
No. And unlike with American bacon, they’re not even that close. Pancetta is made from pork belly, while prosciutto is made from a pig’s hind leg. There’s a slight visual and flavor resemblance since both are, in the end, cured pork products, but that’s where the similarities end.
Can I Eat Pancetta Raw? Is Pancetta Fully Cooked?
Yes, you can eat pancetta raw. In fact, that’s one of the most common ways of having it, especially when it comes to Pancetta Arottolata. It’s a popular antipasto, paired with some cheese and crackers, and is also frequently added to cold sandwiches made with fresh white bread and thick slices of cheese.
Pancetta isn’t cooked at all, but that’s where dry-curing comes in: the salt is supposed to remove all moisture from the meat and stave off bacterial growth, keeping the meat safe for consumption. Eating it straight out of the packaging should be entirely safe if pancetta has been properly cured and aged.
However, it’s also one of those cured meat products that can not only maintain a full flavor profile when cooked but bloom in entirely new ways. Pancetta is often used in traditional Italian dishes (and not only) as the main protein component of the dish.
How Long Do You Cook Pancetta? How Do You Make Pancetta Crispy?
How long it’ll take your pancetta to cook depends entirely on how thick the pancetta is sliced, how high the heat during the cooking is, and what appliance you’re using to cook it.
The classic thin pancetta slices will only need about 2-3 minutes per side to cook on medium-high heat both in a skillet or in the oven; however, that’ll not be enough to crisp it up fully.
For crispy pancetta, you’ll need to keep the slices in the oven for around 10-15 minutes on medium heat (about 350 degrees) or 5-7 minutes per side in the skillet. The time increases if the pancetta slices are thicker.
You can also cook pancetta in the microwave, keeping it at high for around 3 minutes per slide. But the microwave won’t crisp pancetta up as nicely as a skillet will.
What do Italians Use Pancetta For?
While the pancetta is often consumed as is, either as an appetizer or a sandwich ingredient, it’s also one of the most frequently used meats in Italian cooking. Which, I guess, is the one characteristic it does share with bacon, without any caveats.
Pancetta is often added to multiple Italian pasta dishes. The most famous traditional pasta recipes utilizing pancetta are pasta alla Boscaiola, Ragù alla Pugliese, and pasta del Maresciallo, as well as Sagne e Fagioli (a pasta and beans combo). But it can also be used to substitute for guanciale, and that significantly increases the list, with pasta alla Carbonara, pasta alla Gricia, and pasta alla Amatriciana being the most famous examples. That said, do remember that pancetta being considered a good substitute for guanciale and vice versa doesn’t mean they’re identical.
Pancetta is often paired with more neutral-flavored ingredients like eggs, potatoes, and beans, like in Ciaudedda, a fava-beans and potatoes stew, and Pastuccia, a polenta pie from Abruzzo.
But it’s not uncommon to find pancetta paired with other meats as well. Pollo alla Romana, a traditional chicken stew, is one such example, with Spezzatino, a meat-and-potato stew made with a mix of low-grate meat (veal, beef, lamb, or pork) and uses pancetta as an extra flavoring ingredient is another.
Do you Cut the Fat off the pancetta?
No! Pancetta is consumed as is, fat and all. In fact, fat’s a rather important element for its robust flavor. Don’t cut the fat off!
How Long Does Pancetta Last in the Refridgerator?
Large commercial manufacturers come to our rescue once again: their packages are always carefully labeled with best-by or expiration dates, and as long as you’ve got the pancetta stored correctly in the refrigerator, they can last until that date without any detriment to either flavor or texture. Vacuum sealing really is magic; vacuum-sealed pancetta lasts for around a year unless the packaging is damaged (you know the drill: if you notice damage to the packaging, immediately get in touch with the manufacturer so they can assess the prospective harm and advice whether you should dispose of the product).
Once the seal is broken, the pancetta’s shelf life starts to shorten drastically. It can last for up to three weeks without becoming harmful, but its flavor begins to deteriorate rather rapidly. If you want to enjoy the full-bodied, robust pancetta, try to consume what’s left within the first ten days.
To preserve the flavor and texture, you should transfer the diced pancetta to an airtight container or wrap it in wax or parchment paper. If left unwrapped, pancetta will soon dry out and become hard and brittle.
Does Pancetta Have Black Spots?
No! Black (or any other dark) dots are most likely mold, and it’s not the good white mold some cured meats tend to develop, either! If you notice any dark spots on your pancetta, immediately dispose of the product. It’s one of the most significant visual signifiers that the meat has gone bad and is unfit for consumption.
Can I Freeze Pancetta?
Yes, you can freeze pancetta if you want to prolong its shelf life. Frozen pancetta will last for around three months.
Keep in mind that the freezer will dry out the meat, so it may not be as pleasant an antipasto when thawed. But its flavor withstands freezing and defrosting excellently, so you’ll likely not notice any difference when adding it to pasta, for example.