Thursday, February 6, 2014

Home curing your own pancetta

Home cured and far better tasting than store-bought!
As mentioned in my December report on our first batch of salume (guanciale) this curing season, we’ve also branched out into making our own pancetta.

There is lots of information on the Internet about what this Italian pork delicacy is (and isn’t), so I’ll leave it to you to do some research on it if you wish. The quick and dirty explanation is that pancetta* is the Italian version of bacon. Generally, it’s not smoked (you can find smoked versions of it, though) and it can be made one of two ways: the more usual arrotolata (rolled) or stesa (flat). The rolled version is often used as part of an antipasto plate. The flat version is most easy to slice or dice for cooking. Regardless, pancetta is simply salt-cured pork belly with whatever herbs and spices tickle your fancy. It’s dirt simple, takes little time (except for the waiting), and is really quite fantastic, far better than what you generally find in stores.

I normally make something at least a half dozen times before sharing a recipe, but there have been developments with the pancetta recipe that really need to be shared immediately with everyone who’s interested.

I stopped in at Gasparro’s a couple of Saturdays ago and Jason (one of the butchers and a real talent at his craft) asked how our pancetta was coming along. There was a substitute butcher helping out that day (I didn’t know there was such a thing!), and we got to talking. He was Italian and seemed to have a lot of experience making salume.

He asked if I washed my pancetta in white wine after the curing was complete (and prior to hanging it). I told him I do that with guanciale but not pancetta. Then he laid a bit of information on me that I hadn’t considered and is really quite transformational. Washing cured meat in wine has an important function beyond adding flavor and aroma. “It neutralizes the salt.”

Very intriguing. So two days later, after rinsing the cure off my chunk of pork belly, I put it into a shallow glass dish and poured over a couple of ounces of Orvieto (our Italian house white) and rubbed it into the meat really well. The aroma coming off the pancetta was incredibly amplified. To check the action of the wine on the salt, I fried up a small piece cut off before the wine bath, and then after. The salt was noticeably reduced. But things might change after the week-long drying process as liquid is reduced throughout the meat. (I was making pancetta stesa.)

I brought it upstairs last night and unwrapped it (I use a cheesecloth wrapping as suggested by Michael Ruhlmann). The fragrance still noticeably showed the wine. Quite frankly, my pancetta smells amazing. I cut off another small piece and fried it lightly. The wine had definitely had an effect on my perception of saltiness. Mind you, I generally cure things a bit less than some would, simply to keep the salt level down, but this batch was markedly better than the first two I made. If one of you makes it and uses the wine wash, I’d be very interested in knowing what your results are.

From here on in, I’m going to wash all my salume in white wine. My guanciale is better for it. The new pancetta is better. And if this holds true, my lonzino should also be improved. It’s certainly worth a try.

So, if you’ve got a yen to make your own pancetta, here’s a recipe that will give you pretty darn good results, if I do say so myself. It’s more or less Michael Ruhlmann’s recipe from his fantastic book, Charcuterie. I’ll throw in the wine-washing tip free of charge.

It certainly does pay to talk to people!

Makes however much you want

pork belly, skin removed (measure the weight in grams to make the following calculations easier and more accurate)
kosher salt: multiply the weight of the meat by .022
curing salt: multiply the weight of the meat by .005
brown sugar: multiply the weight of the meat by .011
coarsely ground black pepper: multiply the weight of the meat by .0175
2 grams juniper berries: multiply the weight of the meat by .0045
1 clove of garlic per 500 grams of meat
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper per 500 grams of meat
1 dried bay leaf per 500 grams of meat
1 sprig of fresh thyme per 500 grams of meat
1 gram freshly grated nutmeg per 500 grams of meat
2-3 oz dry white wine (for the wash afterwards)

  1. If you’re going to roll your pancetta, make sure the piece is squared up. I’m not going to include rolling instructions, but direct you instead to YouTube where you’ll find some good videos available if you want to go that direction. If you are going to keep your pancetta flat, you don’t need to square it up.
  2. You’ll notice that the ingredient list has everything is dependent on the weight of the pork belly you’ll be curing. If you’re seriously interested in home curing, you really need to use a scale. It’s the only way to be really accurate. I’d suggest purchasing one that will measure up to at least twenty pounds. I find metric measurement is easier to work with accurately, but suit yourself.
  3. Obviously, it’s critical to get the proportions correct – especially where the curing salt is concerned, because in high amounts, it can be dangerous to your health and to those you’re feeding. Just to show you how it works, let’s assume you have a 2 kilo (2000 grams) piece of pork belly. (Get out your calculator!) The cure ingredients would be measured out thusly: 44 grams kosher salt (2000 x .022), 10 grams curing salt (2000 x .005), 22 grams brown sugar (2000 x .011), 35 grams coarsely ground black pepper (2000 x .0175), 9 grams juniper berries (2000 x .0045), 4 cloves of minced garlic (1 x 4), 1 tsp cayenne pepper (1/4 x 4), 4 dried bay leaves (1 x 4), 4 sprigs of fresh thyme (1 x 4), and 4 grams freshly grated nutmeg (1 x 4). Is that clear? Notice that the proportion of curing salt is about 1/4 of the kosher salt. Don’t mess this one up!
  4. Pan toast the juniper juniper berries for a few minutes to really bring out their flavor, then crush them using a mortar and pestle, the side of a knife or the bottom of a frying pan. Chop the thyme sprigs coarsely. Now mix all the cure ingredients thoroughly in a small bowl.
  5. Place the pork belly into a glass pan or other non-reactive container, pour on the cure and rub it into the meat very thoroughly on all sides.
  6. Take the pork belly and put it into a large zip-lock freezer bag. Also add in any of the cure not already clinging to the meat (there shouldn’t be much).
  7. Refrigerate for around 7 days (depends on the thickness of the meat), turning it every other day and additionally rubbing in the cure some more (this is known as “overhauling”). Don’t expect it to throw off a lot of water.
  8. You’ll know your pancetta is fully cured when the meat feels firm at its thickest point. If it’s still feeling a bit squishy (like raw meat), place it back in the fridge for another day. Continue the cure until the meat feels firm all over.
  9. When the pancetta is fully cured, thoroughly wash off the cure under running water. Watch for bits of thyme stem and juniper in cracks and crevices. Pat it dry.
  10. Put the pancetta into a glass pan, pour 2 oz (or more if it’s a big piece) of dry white wine over it. We prefer Orvieto, but you might also try Pinot Grigio or Colli Albani. Thoroughly rub the wine into all sides of the meat.
  11. Wrap the pancetta in two or three layers of cheesecloth, make a sling for it with string and hang it where you dry your cured salumi. We have made our basement cold, so it’s between 50° and 60° during the winter which is pretty well perfect. Ideally, you’d like the humidity to be around 75%. We use a vaporizer on a timer to accomplish this – especially in the dead of winter when it tends to be driest. Expect your basement to suddenly smell very wonderful!
  12. One week of drying gives me the best results. You don’t want the meat to dry out too much and get hard (especially if you’re going to slice it thinly for antipasto).
  13. Late-breaking news (from another post): you’ll know your pancetta is ready when it’s lost 35% of its original weight.
Unwrap your pancetta and enjoy! Last year I found an amazing sandwich can be made by lightly frying thinly sliced pancetta and then putting it on a roll with sliced tomato out of the garden, some provolone cheese and a bit of mayo – sort of an Italian BLT. Some of this latest batch of pancetta is going to be frozen and saved for that.

*Note: Pancetta is correctly pronounced as if the “c” was a “ch” as in “panchetta” (accent on the “ch”) – just to help your Italian along a bit.


Unknown said...

I've try many recipes and you have the best of the best!! Thaks a lot and God Blessed you!!

Rick Blechta said...

Thank you very much! That's very kind of you to say.

David James said...

Hi Rick,
Does this use cure #1 or #2 please? I'm guessing cure #1 as you cook the pancetta to use but would like confirmation before I make my first pancetta.

Rick Blechta said...


I use Cure #1, mainly because a butcher-friend gave me a large jar of it.

Good luck and let me know how it turns out. Pancetta can be a wonderful thing! Lately, we've been using it as an ingredient in authentic Bolognese sauce and it brings it to a whole new level. We've even got compliments on it from someone from Bologna. I believe I gave the recipe for that in a post a while back. It's worth a try.


Anonymous said...

Hi Rick -

I definitely want to try to do this but I do not understand (or cannot find any reference to) CURE #! or CURE #2. What does this mean? What have i missed (or where) ??

And... once it's made and ready for use, how long can you store it before it becomes unfit to eat/cook with and WHERE can you store it ?

Thanks, in advance, and a very happy 2019.

Ernie Abugov

Rick Blechta said...


Here's an article explaining the difference between the two cures:

I use Cure #1 but that's only because someone gave me a lifetime supply. They both give pretty much the same results.

I usually cut my pancetta into 4 oz. chunks, vacuum seal it and then put it in my freezer. It will keep for well over a year. If you vacuum seal it and put it into the fridge it will last for several months. (Use the "smell test" to make sure it's still good.) If you just store it in the fridge in a plastic bag, it will probably stay good for 4 to 6 weeks.

Hope this answers your questions! Let me know how your pancetta turns out.

Which reminds me, I need to make some!!

Happy New Year to your and yours.