Be forewarned: Pancetta is quite possibly the gateway drug. The melt-in-your-mouth quality paired with simplicity and gratification of making your own at home, will have you hooked. Before you know it you’ll be butchering a pig and building your own curing chamber for your next salumi project—or at least you’ll never buy the cheap store-bought stuff again. I’ll teach you how to make pancetta at home.
Pancetta, a Primer
Pancetta is Italian cured pork belly. But unlike it’s American counterpart, bacon, it is not smoked (aside from smoked pancetta, but that’s a different story!). Pancetta comes primarily in three forms: Arrotolata (rolled), Tesa (flat) and Steccata which can be made rolled or folded then pressed and tied between two sticks. The rolled variety is typical of Northern Italy, while the flat variety is common to the Central and Southern regions.
Like any salumi, the spice variations are endless. Each region, village and family has their own rich history and tradition. Black pepper, juniper, bay, garlic, thyme, oregano, and rosemary are all common.
An Introduction to Salumi
If you’re flirting with the notion of making your own salumi or salami, pancetta is an excellent introduction. It’s dead simple to make, takes the least amount of time and requires much less environmental control (more on that below).
Sodium Nitrite Prevents Botulism
In order to make rolled pancetta safely you need sodium nitrite. Sodium nitrite is used to prevent the growth of botulism-causing bacteria and decrease the growth risk of Listeria monocytogenes. It also retains the rosy-red color and enhances flavor. Botulism grows and thrives in anaerobic environments (environments without oxygen). The bacterium that cause botulism is present on the outside of meats. When you roll your pancetta, you are creating the perfect environment for botulism. Nitrite prevents this. If you are dead set on making pancetta without it, make the flat (tesa) kind. It’s much safer. The thick layer of black pepper (a natural antibiotic), rolled into the pancetta, also aids in preventing bacterial growth and rot.
Cure #1, also called Pink Salt, is colored pink so as not to be confused with regular salt. Cure #1 contains 6.25% sodium nitrite. Cure #1 is commonly used in bacon, hotdogs and other products that need less or no drying time. Cure #2 contains both sodium nitrite and nitrate. Simply put, nitrates act as a time-released nitrite. Nitrates are employed in salumi that requires longer periods of curing and drying. The time-release of nitrite continues to protect the meat over time.
Nitrates/Nitratrites: A World of Misinformation
There’s been a whole world of misinformation around nitrates and nitrites and how they may “increase risks of cancer”. While I won’t delve into this topic here, it’s simply not true. Dr. Terry Simpson has an excellent article, backed by a multitude of studies and references debunking the myth. I’d encourage you to read it if you’re of the “nitrates/nitrites are bad” camp.
“Where you receive it (nitrite) actually makes no difference because nitrite is nitrite. In other words, the nitrite derived from celery or other vegetables is exactly same as the nitrite found in cured meats.” — Jeff Sindelar, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin
Nitrates are commonly found in leafy greens and root vegetables like spinach, beets, celery and lettuce. The nitrate in these foods are converted to nitrite when it comes into contact with human saliva. Then, when it is swallowed, the nitrite becomes nitric oxide—an essential and critical compound used by the body to maintain normal blood pressure levels, fight infection and support the nervous system.
Here’s the kicker: Those “naturally cured” and “nitrate-free” marketed products available at your local “health food” store contain nitrite, because they use ingredients like celery juice/powder, rich in nitrite, as a “natural” curing ingredient. Moreover, the amounts of nitrite in these products is typically much higher than that of the conventional method. It’s just marketing, friends.A Word of Caution:
On its own, sodium nitrite/nitrate is dangerous. This is why it’s dyed pink. A single teaspoon ingested is enough to kill a grown man. It’s important to pay close attention to amount added to the cure. In almost all salumi this amounts to 0.25% of the total meat weight. In the example below our pork belly weighed 2,855 grams. 0.25% of that weight is 7.25 grams. That’s not a lot, and emphasises the importance of weighing our ingredients. The reality is this: Anything used inappropriately can be dangerous. 2-4 pills of acetaminophen can be used to cure the effects of a long night of drinking, while a fist-full could cause your liver to fail, and you to die. In the same, nitrates and nitrites are only dangerous if used improperly.
Always Source Natural, Good Quality Meats
As with all salumi, quality and freshness of meat is of paramount importance. Find a good local butcher or source directly from a farm. Let them know what you are doing with the meat, try to get the freshest available and use it as soon as possible. For this pancetta I sourced my pork belly from Carlton Farms, one of the larger suppliers (read: competitive prices) here in Oregon that still practices ethical, natural farming. Freshness is important because bacteria multiplies over time. In fact, every 20 minutes the bacteria present on the outside of meat doubles. Reduce the possibility of bad bacteria by using fresh meat.
Special Ingredients & Tools Needed:
- A precision scale for spice measurement (I use the American Weigh Scales AMW-SC-2KG)
- A general scale for weighing meat (I use the OXO Good Grips Food Scale)
- Butcher’s twine
- Insta Cure #1 (also called Prague Powder #1, Curing Salt, and Pink Salt) (Available at Sausage Maker)
Making Pancetta is Simple:
- Grind and apply all cure to pork belly
- Wrap tightly with cling wrap (or vacuum seal) and store in refrigerator
- Cure for two weeks, flipping every couple days
- Remove from cure, rinse and dry
- Coat meat side thoroughly in cracker black pepper
- Roll, tie ends and truss tightly
- Tag with date hung and weight of meat
- For Semi-dried pancetta (must be cooked): Hang to dry for 1 month
- For Fully-dried pancetta (can be eaten without cooking): Hang until enough water weight has been lost — 15-20% weight loss for a fattier pork belly — OR — 20-25% weight loss for a leaner, meatier pork belly
Learn to weigh your ingredients:
The only way to accurately measure your dry ingredients is by weighing them. For instance, a tablespoon of Diamond kosher salt is much different in weight than a tablespoon of Morton’s kosher salt. If you are going to make salumi you cannot do so without an accurate scale. Weigh your ingredients.
The environment for hanging:
Pancetta can be hung to dry about anywhere: in your kitchen, basement, garage, closet, etc. It’s best, however, in an environment that get’s a bit of humidity, like above a kitchen sink. As light makes fat go rancid, direct sunlight should be avoided. If you’ve found the perfect environment, but light is an issue, you can thoroughly wrap the pancetta in cheesecloth to keep out the light.
I’ve shown my own weights here for reference. The easiest way to approach salumi is to use percentages of total meat weight. So, if your pork belly weighs 2.88 kilos (2,885 grams), your curing mixture would contain 2.75% (80.5 grams) of the meat weight in salt.
% of Meat Weight
|Pork Belly||N/A||2,885 grams|
|Insta Cure #1||0.25%||7.25 grams|
|Brown Sugar||1.75%||50.5 grams|
|Black Pepper||1.8%||52 grams|
|Red Pepper Flakes||0.5%||14.5 grams|
|Juniper Berries||0.5%||14.5 grams|
|Garlic Powder||0.25%||7.25 grams|
|Thyme, Dried||0.25%||7.25 grams|
|Bay Leaf, Dried||0.15%||4.3 grams|
Download a Printable Worksheet
This handy worksheet specifies percentages of ingredients for the Pancetta Recipe, with a space to record your weights. There is also space to record your Cure Start Date, Hang Date, Hang Weight and Target Weight.
Download: Pancetta Worksheet
- Pork belly, skin removed or retained
- 2.75% kosher salt
- 0.25% cure #1 (also called pink salt, curing salt, or prague powder #1)
- 1.75% brown sugar
- 1.8% whole black peppercorns
- 0.5% red pepper flakes
- 0.5% juniper berries
- 0.25% garlic powder
- 0.25% thyme, dried
- 0.15% bay leaf, dried
- Wash the pork belly with a 50/50 solution of vinegar and water. This reduces the amount of bacteria present on the pork.
- Combine all of the cure ingredients in a spice grinder and pulse until ground finely.
- Coat the belly very well on all sides, rubbing the cure into the meat. Use all of the cure. Any which doesn't stick to the meat should be including when wrapped.
- Wrap belly tightly, several times, in cling wrap, or vacuum seal in a bag. Place the curing meat into the refrigerator. The meat will expel water as it cures. If using plastic wrap, something to catch drippings will come in handy. Allow the meat to cure in the fridge for two weeks, flipping every couple days.
- After meat has cured, remove from wrapping and rinse. Dry well.
- Toast peppercorns in a pan until fragrant, but not burnt. Thoroughly coat the meaty side of the belly with cracked peppercorns. Use more than you think you should.
- Role the meaty side with peppercorns toward the middle. The fatty skin side should face out. It's important to roll and tie the pancetta as tightly as possible. If there are air gaps inside it will rot.
- Tie each end with a butcher's knot, then truss the entire belly tightly.
- Weight the trussed belly and record the date and weight on an attached tag.
- Hang in an area with higher humidity, like over a kitchen sink, or in a basement. Temperature is ideally under 70F. Keep out of direct sunlight, as light makes fat go rancid. You can wrap pancetta in cheesecloth.
- Allow to hang for at least a month for semi-dried pancetta, which should be cooked before eaten. For pancetta that is fully cured and dried, hang until 20% of the weight is lost; after which it will be safe to eat without cooking.