The first attempt at charcuterie… a delightful success! Pancetta is cured pork belly, the Italian equivalent of bacon. Unlike American bacon, however, pancetta is cured with a variety of herbs, spices, and garlic, and is left unsmoked. With the help of Karen Aboussie of Savory Spice Shop, we walked away with all the spices we needed… including the insanely hard-to-find curing salt.
- 5-1/2 lbs piece of fresh, skin-on pork belly (available at Asian markets)
- 3 tablespoons whole black peppercorns (divided)
- 2 tablespoons whole juniper berries
- 1/3 cup kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons curing salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 5 dry bay leaves, torn
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
- 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
- Place the pork belly meat side up. Using a sharp boning knife, make the piece more level by trimming off any extra bits of muscle or fat. Square off the edges with a chef’s knife.
- Rinse the pork belly and pat it dry. Place it on a cutting board, skin side up. To remove the skin, use a sharp boning knife. Starting at the bottom left corner, slice in horizontally just under the skin but above the fat layer. Pull the flap of skin toward your body, holding it taut as you loosen it from the fat with a series of small horizontal cuts. Be careful not to remove too much fat or cut too deeply. (Pulling the skin toward you as you cut helps prevent this.)
- Keep cutting until the skin is completely removed, then use your knife to even out the fat layer a little.
- Place the 2 tablespoons of peppercorns and the juniper berries on a rimmed baking sheet. Use a heavy pot to crush them. Combine them in a mixing bowl with the rest of the cure ingredients. Mix the cure very well to evenly distribute the ingredients.
- Place the pork belly on a rimmed baking sheet and rub the cure all over its surfaces, making sure to coat both the fat and lean sides, and all the edges and corners. Carefully place the belly in a large (2- to 2-1/2-gallon) sealable bag. Once it’s inside, rub the belly to redistribute the ingredients that may have fallen off while you moved it. Fold over the excess plastic and press down to remove as much air as possible. Seal the bag. (Alternatively, you may place the cure-coated belly in a glass baking dish and cover tightly with plastic wrap.)
- Place the bagged pork belly on a baking sheet and place it in the refrigerator. Weight it by placing a pot or dish that is roughly the same size as the pork right on top of the bag, and place a 3-pound weight in the dish. (A box of salt or a few cans of tomatoes work great.)
- Refrigerate the weighted belly for 7 days, flipping it over every day. After 7 days, remove the belly from the refrigerator and press down on it to check the firmness. It should feel uniformly firm throughout, as if you’re pressing down on a soccer ball. If the belly is still squishy like raw meat, return it to the refrigerator for up to 3 more days.
- Remove the pork belly from the refrigerator and rinse off the curing mixture under cool running water. (It’s OK if there are still a few bits of pepper or spices on the belly.)
- Move the pork to a clean cutting board and pat it very dry with paper towels. Place it meat side up. Crush the remaining tablespoon of black peppercorns with a heavy pot and rub the crushed pepper over all the meat sides to create an even coating.
- Roll the pork belly very, very tightly into a cylindrical shape, starting at whichever end makes the roll most uniform. Make sure there are no air pockets inside the pancetta. Tie it very tightly with butcher’s twine at 1- to 1-1/2-inch intervals. Be sure to leave enough extra twine to hang the pancetta with.
- Hang the pancetta in a slightly cool, dark, moderately humid place where air can circulate freely around it. (Ideal conditions are around 60°F and around 60 percent humidity.) Keep it out of direct sunlight and away from air vents. A basement is ideal, as is a bathroom that isn’t used often (a shower curtain rod works great for hanging, but not if you’re showering in there!). We hung ours both next to the kitchen sink and in the bathroom, and we never had one pancetta go bad.
- Let the pancetta hang for 2 weeks. It will emit a subtle smell, sort of savory and sweet like the cure. If it smells rancid or rotten, take it down and trash it. When the pancetta is completely firm but pliable like leather, it’s ready.
- Cut down the pancetta and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Store it in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 weeks, or in the freezer for up to 4 months.