At this point, we can easily call certain Italian cured meats like prosciutto and salami pantry staples of most American households. But the world of Italian salume is vast and diverse, and with authentic, gourmet-grade products slowly but surely becoming more thought-after, we’d say it’s high time to discuss iconic items that are dearly beloved in their native country, but the rest of the world is only starting to catch up on.
Sure, dedicated foodies likely already know what guanciale is, but if you’re only starting to get deep into the world of Italian cured meats, then this is the place to start.
What is Pancetta?
Let’s start with the question of “what is pancetta” since it’s arguably the most famous of the three.
Pancetta is a type of Italian cured meat product made from pork belly. The cut and looks have gotten it stuck with the label of “Italian bacon,” and indeed, if you google the term really quickly, pancetta will be the first result to pop up.
In reality, while the two share certain similarities, pancetta is empathetically not bacon. The most significant difference between the two is the curing process: pancetta is salt-cured and then dried for a more extended period of time, and smoking isn’t a necessary part of the process (more on that later). On the flip side, bacon is cured for a shorter period but is always smoked.
The necessary smoking in the bacon production process also creates noticeable differences in the flavor profile. Pancetta is distinctly savory and meaty, just like bacon, but its taste is noticeably porkier, for the lack of a better word: purer, deeper and richer, not overtaken by smokiness and earthiness that are characteristic of bacon.
Visually, pancetta may sometimes resemble bacon quite closely or may differ significantly. While the color scheme is mostly the same (i.e., it’s a pork belly product, so it’s deep and robust pink meat, alternating with broad white stripes of fat), similarities in the form depend on the type of pancetta: It may come in long broad stripes (similar to bacon), or wide circles if it’s been rolled.
Pancetta also has a more delicate, silkier, and smoother texture, while bacon is chewier.
And last, but not least, pancetta’s long salt-curing method ensures it’s entirely safe for raw consumption (even though it’s often used cooked in various dishes). On the other hand, bacon is considered unsafe for raw consumption as it increases the risk of foodborne illnesses, such as trichinosis and tapeworms.
How is Pancetta Made?
While the pancetta production process may seem like it takes quite a while, it’s actually on the shorter side for Italian cured meats. The famous prosciutto, for example, takes around 12 full months of just curing, while pancetta takes less than two from start to finish.
First, pork belly is thoroughly cleaned and deskinned. It’s salted from all sides and then placed in a brine for around two weeks. The brine consists of salt, ascorbate, nitrite, nitrate (in a lower quality product), and spices. The spice blend differs from manufacturer to manufacturer, but it always includes black pepper, and chilis, garlic, rosemary, and juniper tend to be common options as well.
After the pork belly is extracted from the brine, it’s packed into a fibrous casing and left in a moderately warm environment for 24 to 36 hours. During this time, it undergoes enzymatic reactions and cold smoke exposure to attain the proper looks and flavors.
Finally, it’s left in a moderately cold and highly humid environment for around four weeks to cure fully. Bacon curing, in comparison, takes only ten days.
Types of Pancetta:
Pancetta is most often categorized by how it looks, either flat and bacon-like or rolled.
Pancetta Stresa is the flat pancetta, the one that looks like bacon. It’s often cut into thick slices and served grilled or cut into cubes (Cubetti di Pancetta) and used as an ingredient in various dishes, like pasta, quiches, and salads.
Pancetta Arrotolata is the rolled pancetta. It’s given the signature shape after the pork is extracted from the brine and rolled in a way that has fat on the outside and the meaty core on the inside before being packed in a casing. Pancetta Arrotolata is mostly sold thinly sliced and is traditionally consumed raw, either as an antipasto or in a sandwich.
Pancetta Coppata is a variety of Pancetta Arrotolata with Coppa (Italian pork cold cut salume) stuffed into the center of the roll.
Pancetta Affumicata is the smoked pancetta and possibly the one pancetta variety most similar to bacon, not just in looks but in flavor. After curing, it goes through a brief smoking process and attains the smoky, earthy flavor that the bacon boasts.
Best Uses for Pancetta:
Thinly sliced raw pancetta is a popular appetizer paired with crackers, bread, and cheese. Hard Italian cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, and Grana Padano are considered classic flavor pairings.
In cooking, pancetta is often used for various pasta recipes, with pasta alla Boscaiola, Ragù alla Pugliese, and pasta del Maresciallo being classic examples. Sometimes pancetta is used to substitute for guanciale in pasta carbonara and pasta alla Gricia.
It’s also often paired with more neutral ingredients like eggs, rice, and potatoes to amp up the flavor of the dish.
What is Guanciale?
Guanciale (pronounced: Gwaan-Chaa-Lei) was one of the most overlooked Italian cured meats for a long time. Nowadays, though, when cooking traditional recipes with authentic ingredients has become a trend, and gourmet quality product from over the pond isn’t as hard to acquire as they used to be, swapping guanciale for bacon has become Mauvais Ton.
Now, if you cook carbonara pasta, you cook with guanciale, or better not cook it at all, so the question of what is guanciale and how it differs from American bacon or even Italian pancetta.
Guanciale is made from pork jowls and cheeks (its very name is derived from the Italian word “Guancia,” cheeks). Jowls and cheeks are the biggest and the fattiest cut of the pig’s head, and that fat plays a large part in the guanciale’s texture and flavor.
Where backfat and belly fat tends to be soft and fluffy, fat from pig’s jowls and cheeks has a harder and more consistent texture which is considered to be more valuable, especially in cooking. Harder fat, paradoxically, makes guanciale texture slightly softer and more delicate than pancetta’s (or bacon’s). When thinly sliced and consumed raw, it feels melt-in-your-mouth tender. Once it’s cooked and the fat renders out, the meat tends to be crispy on the outside and very tender on the inside.
As for the flavor, the fat adds to its strength. Guanciale is richer, more robust, and buttery than cured meats made from the pork belly or back cut. On the other hand, the complexity of its flavor depends on the spices and herbs utilized in the cooking. Lacking the signature smoky flavor of bacon, it may seem somewhat flatter when consumed on its own, if the manufacturer skipped out on the spices and stuck to
How is Guanciale Made?
Depending on the producer, guanciale can take between 3-4 weeks and 3-4 months to produce. Large manufacturers tend to stick to shorter timelines during the curing process, while smaller artisans tend to dedicate more time to making a gourmet-quality product with a more complex flavor profile (the longer the meat is cured, the more robust the aroma and flavor).
First, pork jowls and cheeks are taken, thoroughly cleaned, and trimmed to a triangle or a square. Unlike many other cured meat products, the meat isn’t deskinned but is rather prepared for curing with skin on.
The prepared cuts are rubbed with a generous amount of salt and left for a while to bring out the moisture. The length of this process depends on the size of the cut, but it typically lasts for only a few days. Once the moisture is expelled, the meat is brushed to get rid of excess salt, rubbed with the producer’s chosen blend of spices, and left to cure once again. Technically, three weeks are considered enough for guanciale curing, but it’s not uncommon to let the meat be for 60 to 70 days, especially among the artisans who aim to produce more high-quality products.
The spice blend used for guanciale can be as simple as just some ground black pepper or can consist of several types of ground pepper (including black and red), fennel, thyme, and garlic. The more complex the spice blend, the more complex the guanciale aroma.
Best Uses for Guanciale:
Guanciale can be consumed raw, but it’s not a popular appetizer.
Most often, it’s added to various pasta dishes, with pasta alla Carbonara, pasta alla Gricia, and pasta Amatriciana being the most famous options. Pasta alla Jonica, Ragù all’Anatra, and pasta alla Silana are other popular Calabrian specialties made with guanciale.
There’s even an Abruzzo specialty straight-up called pasta al guanciale, made with white wine and pecorino romano, along with large guanciale chunks.
What is Speck?
Possibly the most complex question on the list since speck, like salami, covers many types of products at once. So the question is, are we speaking speck in general, German speck, or Tyrolean speck?
Speck, generally refers to smoked and picked meat products made from pork, most often pork belly. By some classifications, guanciale and pancetta can be considered a type of speck ham, along with Italian lardo, Albanian Proshute, Austrian Gailtaler, and even Ukrainian salo, which is just cured fatback with or without skin.
It can be argued that the latter is more of a German Speck variety since, in Germany, speck covers any pork fat product with or without meat. Primarily, it’s used as an equivalent to bacon: Frühstücksspeck or breakfast speck is the German word for classic American bacon, while Schinkenspeck is a type of ham bacon flavored with juniper berries and peppercorn.
But in the English-speaking culinary world, the term speck is used to refer to Tyrolean Speck, a type of Italian cured meat so closely resembling prosciutto that it’s often considered a subtype of it.
Similarities with Prosciutto Crudo are definitely there. Tyrolean speck is made from the same cut of meat, a pork’s hind leg, cured with ample salt and spices and left to dry for months.
Tyrolean Speck tends to be darker in color than most prosciutto Crudo varieties, ranging from stark red to almost brownish with delicate strikes of white fat. Yet, unless you’re a true prosciutto connoisseur, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to see the difference between the two with a naked eye, as prosciutto color range can get quite dark as well.
The most significant difference between the two is the flavor. Where prosciutto is intense but delicate, with sweet undertones undercutting its savoriness, Tyrolean speck is much deeper, smoky, and earthy, with a distinct flavor from juniper berries that are a mandatory ingredient used in its production process.
The texture is another characteristic that sets them apart. Although, once again, there are similarities between the two, the texture of Tyrolean speck is denser, even harder, more elastic, and chewier than classic prosciutto Crudo’s.
How is Tyrolean Speck Made?
The crucial difference between the prosciutto and speck production process is that the pork leg gets deboned to make the latter. Whereas for prosciutto, the leg is completely cured, for speck, it gets divided into large sections before being cured with a generous amount of salt and spice blend.
The spice blend varies among producers, but it’s always supposed to include black pepper and juniper berries. Other than that, popular spice options include garlic, bay leaves, nutmeg, etc. The meat is left to dry for a few weeks, after which the smoking process begins.
Tyrolean speck is cold-smoked. It takes about a week to entirely smoke the meat, as it’s smoked intermittently, for only a couple of hours a day. Once the smoking process is deemed done, the speck is left to age once again for five to six months.
Types of Tyrolean Speck:
Speck itself is certainly not a protected name, considering it’s almost an umbrella term and even Tyrolean speck isn’t a protected term by itself. But a couple of varieties have been granted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status by the EU, which means they can only be produced from products subjected to strict quality control, in designated areas, under specified guidelines.
Speck Alto Adige PGI is widely considered to be the one authentic Tyrolean speck variety. As with many other PGI products, its quality is closely monitored by the governing consortium (Südtiroler Speck Consortium), guaranteeing high production standards. There are currently around 30 authorized producers. The smoking temperature mustn’t go higher than 68°F. The meat is supposed to age for 22 weeks and contain no more than 5% salt per pork leg.
Speck Sauris PGI is not precisely a variety of Tyrolean speck, but it’s labeled as a speck nonetheless, so it’s something to keep in mind. This product is a specialty of Sauris municipality in the Italian region Friuli-Venezia Giulia. It has a tender texture and more mellow taste, with a deep smokiness to it acquired through the traditional slow-smoking process.
Best Uses for Tyrolean Speck:
Tyrolese speck is often used in the same vein as prosciutto (and can act as a replacement in most recipes): as a cold appetizer or as a topping for more complex dishes. It can be served thinly sliced with some crackers or bread (rye and multi-frain are standard options) or used as a topping for a pizza or a green salad.
It’s sometimes paired with seafood and seafood-based dishes though in a very conservative amount not to overwhelm the delicate flavors.
Robust and rich, it can act as a replacement for pancetta and bacon in specific recipes, especially as a topping or a flavoring ingredient, but won’t work as a guanciale substitute due to the differences in flavor and texture premeditated by the latter’s higher fat content.