I’ve skirted around the edges of this recipe for a while now.
It’s not really a recipe, as such…it’s more of a chemistry experiment that involves taking something a bit bland and mediocre, adding some other stuff to it and miraculously transforming it into something that’s way better than the sum of its parts.
It’s really a bit of kitchen alchemy.
Yes, I know I’m doing the mighty pork belly a disservice by describing it as ‘mediocre’, but add some salt, sodium nitrite, pepper and sugar, leave it for a while to cure and dry and you’ve got pancetta, which is a different beast entirely.
If pork belly is quite a smart little mid-range sports car, pancetta is a Ferrari.
Preparing the cure
Pay close attention to the weights and measures – if you screw up the part about the sodium nitrite, you could do yourself some serious, possibly fatal damage.
You’ll need a pork belly. A good, thick slab of meat about 2.5kg in weight, off the bone with the skin removed – this is definitely a prep job for your butcher. Ask him or her to skin the belly, but leave as much of the fat intact as possible. As with all charcuterie, the quality of the meat you start with is critical to the success of the finished article. Rubbish in, rubbish out, so try to get hold of the best quality pork you can.
Now for the cure.
All you need to do is mix together four crushed cloves of garlic, 50g of salt, 26g of dark brown sugar, 20g of crushed black pepper (20g is a lot of pepper. Don’t even bother trying to grind it out of a pepper mill), 10g of crushed juniper berries, four crumbled up bay leaves, 4g of grated nutmeg and the leaves from a small bunch of thyme.
There’s one more ingredient. 12g (that’s TWELVE grammes) of pink salt, or Prague powder #1, which contains 6.25% sodium nitrite.
What is sodium nitrite and why do you need it?
Sodium nitrite needs to be used in any form of dry curing process. It serves three distinct purposes:
- Safety - sodium nitrite kills bacteria, which can flourish in exactly the sort of environment that’s ideal for dry curing. Sodium nitrite’s main target is botulism. You don’t want botulism.
- Appearance - sodium nitrite stops the meat from going grey and looking unappetising. It helps to maintain that healthy fresh and pink tinge. It’s a cosmetic difference, but an important one.
- Flavour - sodium nitrite provides a distinctive flavour to food. Some would describe it as ‘hammy’…it’s the flavour of cured meat.
Sodium nitrite is sold under a few different names, but pink salt and Prague powder #1 are the most common.
It’s normally tinted pink to help prevent its accidental use in place of plain salt, but the pink colouring does tend to make it look like something that a child might confuse with some form of confectionery, so keep it well sealed and well out of reach. I keep mine in a plastic bag, in a jar completely and repeatedly sealed with masking tape with DANGER – DO NOT USE written all over it. I store it at the back of a cupboard, which, as I’m by far the tallest person in the house, only I can reach, and even then I need a chair.
No, I’m not over-reacting. Well, maybe a little bit, but you get my point?
One last thing – don’t confuse sodium nitrite with sodium nitrate – they’re chemically different and used in a completely different way.
So, add your twelve very carefully measured grammes of pink salt to the rest of the cure and mix it in well.
Cure and wait
The rest is easy.
Tip about half of the cure into the bottom of a big plastic box and lay the pork belly on top. Pour the other half of the cure over the top and rub it in well. Put the lid on the box, or seal it with cling film and put it in the fridge.
Every other day, flip the belly over and redistribute the cure. This is called overhauling by those in the know.
After seven days of refrigerating and flipping, you’re done. The meat should feel firm at its thickest point, but if it doesn’t, just give it another couple of days in the fridge.
When you’re finally satisfied that the meat has cured properly, rinse all of the cure off under running water and dry the pork with a towel.
Roll and hang
Now you’re going to turn your cured pork belly into pancetta. This is the magical part.
You need to roll the belly up, but before you do, sprinkle another 20g of crushed black pepper over the meat side of the joint. The pepper will end up on the inside of the rolled joint and will flavour it from the middle. Don’t underestimate the importance of this – it gives the meat a fantastic flavour.
Rolling the pork up can be difficult, and another pair of hands is definitely a bonus.
Try to get the meat rolled as tightly as possible, and tie it securely using a lot of loops of string. The aim is to get the meat rolled up so that there are no air pockets in the middle, and to keep it that way.
Tie a big loop on one end and hang the meat up in a cool, humid place. Eight to fifteen Celsius is ideal, with 60 percent humidity. I strung a cable across the bottom of my cellar steps and hung the pancetta from that – the location is cool, a little humid and dark, and the cable kept the meat high enough so that people didn’t bang into it as they passed.
Hang the pancetta for three weeks.
More waiting, I know, but slowly air drying the pork helps to develop the flavour and lets the meat mature. You could use the pancetta as soon as it’s been cured, but it won’t be the same as the air-dried version.
The humidity is important – you don’t want the meat to dry out too quickly and become hard. If that seems to be happening, wrap the pancetta in plastic and refrigerate it – it’ll still be great.
The end product should be firm, but still have some give in it. ‘Matured’, is the word I’d use.
When it’s done, you can keep it in the fridge for about three weeks, or freeze it for a good few months.
How to use your pancetta
Pancetta has a million and one uses. I tend to treat it like a really great slab of bacon. Lardons go into soups and stews, adding an instant explosion of savoury taste that lifts many a mundane soup out of the doldrums.
It’s wonderful in something as simple and straightforward as an omelette, but I think my favourite way to eat it is even simpler than that – just fry a handful of lardons in a little olive oil until they’re crisp then, toss with some pasta and perhaps add a little chopped sage. The pancetta shows off the pasta and the pasta shows off the pancetta, and really, cooking doesn’t come much easier than that.
Charcuterie can be a bit daunting. I found that Michael Ruhlman and Brian Rolcyn’s superb book Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing answered a lot of questions.
Ruhlman has a highly recommended blog at ruhlman.com.
Menu In Progress is also worth a look, too.
Ever tried making charcuterie? Tell us about it!