I’m no stranger to pork belly. Butcher Son regularly brings me home slabs to turn into bacon, which I happily do. I’ve experimented with various rubs: brown sugar, molasses, pepper. I’ve smoked the slabs in a converted Weber and an electric smoker, and used several species of wood chips. But I have never attempted to make anything harder with that pork belly than bacon. Until now….
I decided I wanted to try to make pancetta. I read up on the process in several books I own, and finally chose to follow the directions in Charcuterie, The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. Then Butcher Son brought me home two 10-pound slabs of pork belly. I cut out the choicest 5-pound piece for the pancetta, and cut the rest to make bacon.
After skinning the slab*, I assembled the ingredients for the curing process. The dry cure used for pancetta is different than that which I use for bacon. The recipe called for pink salt. Initially I thought this meant pink Himalayan salt, but after thinking about it for awhile, I began to wonder why such a specific salt was included, so I did some searching and found that “pink salt” is the trade term for “curing salt” and is actually pink. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it at any local stores and had to send Mr B off to Williams Sonoma to pick up a jar ($9.50).
Once he returned I mixed the pink salt with garlic, salt, brown sugar, fresh ground black pepper, crushed juniper berries, bay leaves, freshly grated nutmeg and sprigs of fresh thyme from the garden.
After massaging it in vigorously, I vacuum sealed the slab and placed it in the refrigerator. Every other day I took it out, massaged the belly (called overhauling), and put it back in the fridge.
After 10 days it was firm and considered cured. At this point it was time to rinse, dry, smear with fresh ground pepper and roll that sucker up for the drying process. Butcher Son asked around and got some good tips on rolling and tying, one of which was that if he didn’t end up with blisters, he was doing it wrong. I thought that was a bit extreme, but shame on me for doubting the experts.
The goal when rolling is for the belly to be as tight as possible with no air in the middle. Rolling the belly isn’t the hard part, it’s the tying that requires brute strength. You start in the middle and work your way out, so that there is little to no air between the interior rolls. After the 4th tie, Butcher Son found himself with missing skin off both his pinkies from tying so tightly. Apparently he just skipped the blister stage.
Once the pancetta is rolled and tied it needs to go into a cool humid place. The book suggests between 50 and 60 degrees and 60 percent humidity. We happen to have an old wine refrigerator that works fine, but is noisy as all get-out. We had to remove it from the dining area due to the issue and it now resides in a corner of the garage. So we plugged it in, placed a pan of ice cubes in the bottom and laid the roll on one of the shelves.
Every afternoon (when it was warmest) we dumped the pan of water and added more ice. Every other day we turned it a quarter turn and checked to make sure that the pancetta was not getting too hard and drying out too much. It takes approximately two weeks to dry sufficiently. You may notice small white dots of mold on the end pieces. This is fine, it will be cut off before eating.
What you want is a semi-firm roll. Too hard and you know you’ve gone too long. There is some shrinkage due to the drying process, so the five-pound pork belly you started with will end up being closer to 4 (and a squosh).
I have to tell you it was mighty hard to wait two weeks to taste it. And Butcher Son wanted to wait three! So we compromised. I cut off one dry end and then 1/2 pound to make some pasta carbonara. And we have stowed the pancetta in the wine fridge for one more week. Meanwhile, it looks gorgeous and tasted heavenly in the carbonara dish. (Served with a salad straight out of our garden and fresh artisan bread baked with our own herbs!)
I think I might use a bit more herbs in the initial curing, and definitely use more pepper prior to the rolling process, but as pancetta goes, this is a winner. Can't wait for the next taste test.
*NOTE: Always ask for skinned pork belly – it will make your life sooooo much easier.