Making Bacon (or more precisely, Pancetta.)

It’s been a while since I posted anything here … after the intensity of turning out several types of charcuterie in the last few weeks, I thought I needed a break from pork. Plus, it took quite a while to mow through the various pâtés and sausages that I’d produced.  (I gave a lot away, and froze some as well … but it was only today that the last of the pâté de foie disappeared.)  Also, it took this long for something I started to make two weeks ago to be ready to photograph, use, and write about, namely, my latest attempt at pancetta arrotolata.

True to my shegetz heritage, I love bacon. Good bacon, that is. Not that watery, slimy stuff you get in hygienic plastic packages at the supermarket that’s been cured as quickly as chemically possible, with “added smoke flavour”.  I like the stuff that has been cured slowly, with lots of salt to draw out the water, and then hung to dry in a cool, humid place for a period of time, and then, maybe (but not necessarily) cold-smoked. You can find it at better butchers. Or you can make it yourself. Really, it’s not the least bit difficult.

I like to make it myself not so much for something to have at breakfast, but because I like to cook with it.  Many world cuisines use cured meats (or fish) in their dishes. One of my favourite dim sum dishes, Lo mai gai (sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf) has a delicious filling of chicken, chinese mushroom and sausage in the centre.  When we went to a cooking class in Instanbul, we made a version of hummus that was garnished with pastırma, an air-dried, cured beef that is a forerunner to the pastrami that we are familiar with in this part of the world.  The Iberian countries do marvellous things with salted cod: bolinhos de bacalhau  are a guilty treat I indulge in once in a while.   Cured anchovies, either mashed, or in the form of Asian fish sauce, add a huge (and surprisingly non-fishy) umami kick to all sorts of dishes, from Italian chicken fricassees to Vietnamese phở.

When it comes to French cuisine, I have to  admit to being confused about the extent to which cured meat is used.  The classic – as in Escoffier classic – brown stocks call for “raw ham”,  in addition to beef, veal or poultry trimmings.  Does that mean meat from a fresh leg of pork?  Other French recipes call for “bacon”.  For example, Quiche Lorriaine – an underrated dish if there ever was one – when made correctly, has only eggs, bacon and heavy cream (no cheese!) as a filling; lean cuts of meat are larded with bacon before roasting to help them stay juicy; many, many dishes in the category of la cuisine bonne femme, homey, comforting, so-called “simple” (!) dishes like Coq au Vin, or Boeuf a la Bourguignonne call for as much as a half-pound of bacon sliced into lardons to be slowly browned to render off their delicious fat for sautéing the vegetables in the dish.

But when you see “bacon” referenced in recipes for French dishes, it’s not the nasty, fake-maple-smoke-flavoured stuff that is sold in supermarkets.  What they’re looking for, according to Julia Child is lard de poitrine frais, which translates to  fresh, (that is, unsalted, and unsmoked) pork breast.  To be honest, I’m not really sure what that is. I’ve researched it, but so far, I’ve not come up with a clear explanation of what cut of pork  that actually is, though it sounds like it is what we in the English-speaking world know of as fresh pork belly.

Doubly mystifying is why recipes refer to it as “bacon”, if it’s not salted or otherwise cured. When Mrs. Child calls for bacon, she blanches supermarket bacon in boiling water for 10 minutes, which rids it of it’s smokey flavour, as well as much of the salt. So, it’s not clear to me what is authentic here: are we expected to use fresh pork belly, which is now widely available wherever “bacon” is mentioned?  Or to blanch cured pork belly?

Personally, I like the flavour of unsmoked, cured pork belly.  And while it’s use in French cuisine may not be authentic, it’s use in the cuisine of Italy, in the form of pancetta  is common.  And since it was the Italians who brought decent food to France in the first place (and since the high-priestess of Italian food writing, Marcella Hazan extolls it’s virtues – she says in The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking that its “savoury-sweet unsmoked flavour has no wholly satisfactory substitute”), I feel comfortable substituting pancetta for bacon in any French dish.

Pancetta is pork belly that has been salt-cured, and seasoned liberally with black pepper, and sometimes a few other spices.  While there are five types of pancetta used in Italy (arrotolata, which is cured, seasoned with spices and rolled; affumiciata, a smoked variety used mainly in the Veneto;  stesa, or slab bacon, which cured only with salt, and used when you want a more subtle flavour;  fresca, which seems to be equivalent to the French lard de poitrine frais, and coppata, which is really more of a cold cut), it is generally commercially available in Canada in only “sweet” and “hot” varieties.  The hot version is just the sweet version with the addition of  dried red chilli pepper.  Whenever I’ve used pancetta, I’ve only ever used the sweet; I like using it  to add a background layer of flavour to things.  If I want heat added, it’s more convenient to add crushed red pepper so that I can control the level of heat myself.

In any case, pancetta is fantastic. It has the wonderful porky, saltiness of regular bacon, but without the smoke flavour.  Sometimes I have a slice of it fried, with an egg for breakfast.  It’s great in a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.  If a recipe calls for “bacon” as an ingredient, I almost always use pancetta because  the smokey flavour of  even well-made Canadian-style smoked bacon overpowers most dishes.

Which (finally) brings me to what today’s post is all about.  Making pancetta.  While commercially-made pancetta is generally fine, home-made pancetta is particularly delicious. And if you can have a particularly delicious version of something in a dish that you make, as opposed to something that is “generally fine”, why not have it?  When you make your own pancetta, you’ll end up with rather a lot of the stuff, but it freezes well. I freeze it in quarter-pound chunks, which thaw very quickly.  If you have it on hand, you’ll be surprised how quickly you go through it.

And it’s pretty simple to make. All you do is dredge a pork belly with a curing salt mixture and whatever seasonings you want.  Cover it and refrigerate it for a week, turning it once a day to expose all surfaces to the liquid that accumulates.  After a week, you rinse it off, pat it dry, and cover one side with cracked pepper and roll it into a log shape and tie it.  At this point you can hang it in a cool, humid place for a couple of weeks so that more of the moisture in the meat evaporates, concentrating flavours, or you can use it (or cut it up and freeze it) immediately.

A note about nitrites
Almost ALL cured meats contain nitrites.  Nitrites are naturally-occurring substances that are used when curing meats prevent the formation of botulism. Before you say “I don’t eat foods with nitrites”, you should know that unless you exist solely on lettuce, there are nitrites in your diet.  In fact, even if you don’t eat cured meats, you’re likely getting more nitrites from the vegetables you eat than you are from processed meats. (See this article for details.)   There is a link between nitrite and nitrate consumption and colorectal cancer, but if 80% of the nitrites we consume come from vegetables, cutting out meats cured with nitrites isn’t going to eliminate the risk. The way I see it,  if you force-fed even kale to a lab rat, it would probably get cancer. I wouldn’t make cured meats a staple of my diet, but personally, I think indulging once in a while is fine.

Here are the details (recipe adapted from Michael Ruhlman’s and Brian Polcyn’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing):

  1. Get a piece of pork belly from your butcher, about 5 pounds.  Ask if he or she will cut off the rind. I don’t know that it’s essential. If you leave the rind on, it may take a bit longer for the cure to work in the fridge.
  2. When you get it home, trim it so that has a nice square or rectangular shape. This will make it easier to roll.  If you have scraps left over, you can cure them as well.
  3. Make a dry-cure mix with:
    • 2 teaspoons of pink salt
      Note: DO NOT skip this ingredient; it’s essential for curing meat safely, as it prevents the formation of botulism.  Pink salt, sometimes known as Insta Cure #1, or Prague Powder #1, is a mixture of 93.75% salt, and 6.25% sodium nitrite.   Pink salt is dyed pink so that you don’t confuse it with regular salt.  I buy it at one of the dry goods stores at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market. You can also order it from many places online.
    • ¼ cup of kosher salt
    • 2 tablespoons of dark brown sugar
    • 2 tablespoons of coarse black pepper

    To this mixture, you can add additional flavourings as you like. I used:

    • 4 finely-minced garlic cloves
    • 2 tablespoons of crushed juniper berries
    • 4 crumbled bay leaves
    • several sprigs of fresh thyme

      Pork belly in foreground, with dry-cure mix in background.

      Pork belly in foreground, with dry-cure mix in background.

  4. Spread this mixture over both sides of the pork belly.  Make sure every part of the surface is covered.

    The dry-cure mix spread on the pork belly.

    The dry-cure mix spread on the pork belly.

  5. Put the belly into a large Ziplock bag and seal it.  Or, put it into a non-reactive dish (that is, not aluminum or un-enameled cast iron) that is just big enough to hold it lying flat, then cover it tightly.
  6. Put it in the fridge.  Once a day, take it out and, if it’s in a Ziplock turn it over, and massage the belly a little to re-distribute the liquid that’s accumulated. If it’s in a dish or pan, just turn the belly over, then cover it up again.  Put it it back in the fridge.
  7. After a week, give the belly a poke in several places. It should feel firm, not squishy. If it’s still squishy/soft, put it back in the fridge for a day or two more.
  8. When the meat is firm, rinse it off thoroughly, then pat it dry.
  9. Spread the belly out on a board, skin/fat side down.
  10. Spread 2 tablespoons of coarsely ground black pepper over the meat, and press it in with your hand.
  11. At this point, you can do one of two things: you can leave the belly flat, or you can roll it and tie it.  I decided to roll mine because it just seemed more traditional. Its also easier to cut a slice off when it’s rolled.  If you do roll it, roll it from the long side, and tie it as tightly as you can with string every inch or so.  Here’s a video that shows how to do a proper butcher’s knot, which is really helpful when tying meat like this.  It takes a bit of practice, but once you’ve got it, it makes tying meat  a lot easier.


    Pork belly, rolled tightly and tied.

  12. The pancetta is now ready to be used.  You can cut it up into chunks and freeze it. Or, if you have a cool, humid place (45-60 degrees), such as a root cellar, you can hang the pancetta, to dry a little more for one to two weeks.  If you like, you can tie a couple of layers of cheesecloth around it to keep flies or other basement-type bugs off of it.  But if you do hang it, check it every few days to make sure it doesn’t start to get dry and hard on the outside. If it does, it’s drying too quickly.  Wrap it tightly and refrigerate it for up to 3 weeks, or cut it up and freeze up to 4 months.

If you’re looking for a way to try your beautiful pancetta, consider:

  • Frying thin slices for the best BLT sandwich you’ll ever have
  • Making spaghetti carbonara
  • Slicing off a finger-thick piece of pancetta, cutting it into strips, and stuffing these into the cavity of a chicken, along with half a lemon.  Roast the chicken.  Serve the cut-up pieces with some of the cooked pancetta from the cavity
  • For something really elegant, if a little fussy (you need a larding needle to make this), try Marcella Hazan’s Roasted Veal Studded with Pancetta and Cornichons

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