The Story of Pancetta

Pancetta is Italian cured pork belly. It is a type of salume (salted preserved meat) that is manufactured in every region in Italy. It is said there as many different types of pancetta as there are valleys and mountains on the Italian Peninsula. In some regions it is smoked over juniper wood, in others it is pressed between two pieces of timber. The word pancetta comes from the Italian word for belly – pancia. We get the word ‘paunch’ from the same Latin root.

To make pancetta the pork belly is cleaned and then preserved with salt. Some recipes call for the belly to be ‘wet cured’ by being brined. However pancetta is more commonly dry cured by being placed under coarse salt for around a week. During this time the salt draws moisture from the flesh whilst some salt is absorbed into the muscles of the belly. This low moisture  / high salt environment is an inhospitable place for bad bacteria that would otherwise decompose the pancetta. The belly is then washed, rubbed with more salt, perhaps aromatic herbs and garlic. The pancetta are then hung in a cool dry place to finish curing for a period of up to around six months. The salt on the outside helps stop spoilage. Meanwhile, during this curing period, the muscles inside the pancetta slowly transform and some of the protein breaks down into amino acids such as glutamic acid. We detect glutamic acid as ‘savoury’ or what the Japanese call umami.

Some pancetta is rolled. The Italians call these pancette arrotolata. After being salted they are rolled, placed inside a natural animal casing, such as an ox bung and encased in string mesh and then hung for up to 6 months to cure. In Italy flat pancetta are called stesa – Italian for flat. Flat and rolled pancetta are the most common type that are made here in Australia.

Rolled pancetta is more often sliced very finely and served as part of an antipasto plate. Slices can be grilled and used whole or crumbled as garnish in dishes. Flat pancetta is generally cubed or cut into small batons and used in a wide variety of dishes from pasta to sauce to braises where the fine textured fat adds flavour, mouthfeel and sheen. Very fine quality flat pancetta, especially when there is a lot of thick, white fat, can be sliced very, very finely and served with grissini.

Italians consider the thick layer of white fat in all pancetta to be an attribute as it brings so much flavour and richness to dishes cooked with it or antipasto plates it is served on.