Pancetta is Italian for “little belly.” It is cured pork belly, usually but not always partly air-dried. It may be a flat slab, like North American bacon, or it may be rolled into cylinder with a delightful, spiral cross section. It is almost never smoked.
Making Pancetta at Home
1. Make the cure mix: kosher salt, curing salt, fresh coarse ground black pepper, crumbled bay leaves, fresh ground nutmeg, crushed juniper berries, brown sugar, and fresh thyme. The complete recipe can be found in Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie.
2. Trim the pork belly. Square the edges. The slab I had also happened to have the skin on, which must be removed. Try to leave a thin layer of fat on the belly, as it will protect the meat during the drying period. You can see below that I cut too deep, into the meat, in a couple places. Not the end of the world, but not ideal, either.
6. After about one week, the belly will be firm to the touch. Rinse off the seasoning and dry the meat thoroughly. Give what will be the interior of the rolled pancetta (that is, the side that did not have skin on it…) a fresh coat of cracked black pepper.
8. Hang to dry for two weeks. This is tricky, here in Edmonton. Ideal conditions are between 8°C and 15°C, and between 50% and 60% humidity. Michael Ruhlman says that he hangs his pancetta in his kitchen, with his pots and pans. This leads me to believe that temperature is not so critical. Improper humidity, on the other hand, can really mess up a pancetta. If the air is too moist, not only will the meat not dry, but mold may develop. Too dry, and the exterior will harden and trap moisture within. I carried a humidity probe through the different rooms in my house, and they all were between 30% and 40%, even the concrete prison cell that is the laundry room. Once it poured rain for a few days and the humidity crept up to 50%.
As I don’t have a naturally cool, damp cellar, I hung the pancetta in a closet, and ran a small cold-air humidifier in the adjacent room. I managed to keep the humidity between 40% and 70%, and the temperature just under 20°C. Over the two week drying process, some of the small, protruding pieces of meat on the two ends dried to diamond-like hardness, but the properly tied portions became firm, with just a little give.