What Is Pancetta?
You've seen it in carbonara. Nope, it's not the same thing as bacon. Here's everything you need to know.
By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen
Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.
To say that pancetta can be used in any recipe is an overstatement. But it can be used in any recipe where you are sauteeing and want a meaty, pork flavor and some scrumptious bits of pork to go along with it. Pancetta can be part of a salumi platter with other dried and cured meats. It’s a good idea to keep a stash, because you never know when the urge for Pasta Carbonara will strike. Here's what you need to know about it.
What Is Pancetta?
Pancetta is pork belly (the same cut of pork that bacon is made from) that is cured in salt and sometimes sugar and spices, including black pepper, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. The curing may be a dry cure or a brine cure, but either way, the cure is what helps preserve it and flavor it, much the same way salt cured salmon becomes lox, and salt-brined brisket becomes corned beef. Pancetta originated in what is now Italy as a way to preserve the pork belly for storage, shipping and trade.
Slabs of pancetta usually are rolled into a log. And that’s how it’s sold at the deli; the log can be sliced to any thickness. Most grocers also sell it in packages pre-sliced and, more commonly, cut into thick cubes.
What Does Pancetta Taste Like?
The flavor of pancetta is somewhat similar to bacon, but with a much deeper flavor of pork. The essence of pork flavor is stronger in pancetta than bacon because it isn’t smoked.
What’s the Difference Between Pancetta, Guanciale, Bacon and Prosciutto?
Pancetta is pork belly that's cured, spiced and dried to the point that it can be eaten, while guanciale is pork jowl that's cured, spiced and dried. They're made through the exact same process, but from different cuts of meat. Guanciale can be eaten straight from the package, but it is mainly fat, so it's typically used as a source of fat that can be rendered for flavor in cooking. Either of them can be smoked after they are cured, but it is not the norm. When pancetta is smoked, it is called pancetta affumicata. If guanciale is smoked, it becomes guanciale affumicato.
Bacon is pork belly, the same cut as pancetta, but it is almost always smoked. So it's the same cut, finished with a different process, and needs to be cooked before eating.
Prosciutto is made from a hind pork leg (a ham), that is partially deboned, cured and hung to dry with the exposed meat packed with a covering of fat to avoid over-drying or drying too quickly. It hangs to dry and finish the cure for 9 to 36 months, and is safe to eat straight from the package.
What Is a Substitute for Pancetta?
The best substitute for pancetta is guanciale: cured pork jowl. Guanciale has more fat than pancetta, but it is processed in the same way: salt cured, spiced and dried. Guanciale is more readily available at Italian delis and butchers than it used to be, so you should be able to find it. Bacon is the other option, and with roughly the same fat and water content as pancetta, it will cook in a similar fashion. Buying extra-thick cut bacon or slab bacon and cutting it yourself is the best way to go. Just remember that bacon is smoked, so you’ll end up with some smoky flavor. The other option is prosciutto, and flavor-wise it is a good stand-in, but it is much drier than pancetta, and you won’t get much fat from it if you try to render it and use the drippings for sauteing. It’s best to add prosciutto at the end, using it for flavor.
How to Cook Pancetta
Pancetta is dry-cured and fully aged, so it can be thinly sliced and eaten raw. You can also cook thin slices the same way you cook bacon in a pan if you want to eat alongside eggs with toast. Dicing and slowly rendering the fat out of it is a common way to start many recipes. Putting 1/2 cup water in a saute pan before the pancetta will help it render without becoming too crisp at the beginning. The water will eventually boil off. As you would with bacon, remove the crispy bits before sauteeing anything else, then add them back later. In our Frisee Salad recipe, the rendered fat is used to make the vinaigrette and the crisp pancetta is sprinkled on the salad at the end. We have more ideas on how to use pancetta in our roundup of how to use pancetta.
Recipes Featuring Pancetta
Hands down, this is the pancetta dish that’s at the top of our list.
Crunchy, bitter, creamy and sweet, this Frisee Salad has it all.
Cooking the mushrooms and the rice in the pancetta drippings brings flavor to every bite of this creamy risotto.
Pancetta and peas are a classic combination with pasta, and even better when the pasta is cheesy ravioli.
The vegetables in this recipe are sauteed in pancetta drippings before being added to the broth, making for mega flavor.