We recently bought a copy of Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's Charcuterie. We have been making our own fresh sausages for a while now, and wanted to try our hand at some cured meats. Many of the recipes require low-temperature curing, however - something difficult for the home charcutière, and completely out of reach for us given our Southern California condo lifestyle.
Enter pancetta. Pancetta is Italian bacon, and is cured but not smoked. It is one of the recipes in the book that has a short open-air drying time, and is reasonably temperature tolerant. We often run across recipes calling for pancetta cut into lardons or cubes, but the only pancetta we see in our local stores is very thinly sliced and packaged in tiny amounts (4 ounces or less). We've purchased larger chunks from specialty stores, but found only poor quality versions, without the full flavored complexity so touted by pancetta lovers. Some recipes indicate that "any good quality bacon can be substituted," but American style bacon is so characteristically smoky that it can be overpowering if that's not what you are looking for in a dish.
So, first step: Pink Salt. We ordered our pink salt (DQ Curing Salt) online from Butcher & Packer Supply Company. You can also order it from The Sausage Maker Inc. (Insta Cure #1), but shipping to California was less expensive from Butcher & Packer, so the decision was made.
Second step: Pork Belly. While our standard supermarkets here at the beach don't readily offer slabs of pork belly at the meat counter, Ranch 99, a large Asian oriented supermarket just a few miles away does. They didn't offer any large sized slabs, but at just under 3 pounds, I determined that one belly would be plenty for our household of two.
Third step: Trimming. Our belly came "skin on" so I pulled out a sharp knife and carefully separated the skin from the fat layer. Occasionally I would accidentally cut through the skin, but I wanted to be sure to leave the fat as intact as possible. (I wish we had used the skin for something later, but unfortunately, we weren't inspired in time, so it went to waste.) Our belly was fairly neatly cut already, so I only had to trim a bit off one side to square it up.
Step four: Seasoning. Our dry cure mixture included pink salt, fresh garlic, kosher salt, light brown muscovado sugar, black pepper, crushed juniper berries, crumbled bay leaves, freshly ground nutmeg, and fresh thyme leaves. I mixed it all up and rubbed it all over the pork belly, pressing it into the flesh and fat layer as evenly as possible. Then we covered the dish with plastic wrap and popped it into the refrigerator to cure.
Step five: Curing and Waiting. Over the next several days, the cure caused liquid to come out of the meat and pool around the slab like a brine. We turned the belly every other day and rubbed it gently to redistribute the cure and seasonings. I checked it after a week, but decided to leave it another 24 hours to firm up a bit more. On the eighth day, the meat seemed ready -- of course this was a guess, given that neither of us had done any curing before, but we went with it. We rinsed the belly under cold water to remove the dry cure, and then pat it completely dry.
Step six (we're getting there...): Rolling and Tying. This step was a bit of a challenge. The goal is to get it tightly rolled without any air pockets inside. After sprinkling the meat side with plenty of coarsely ground black pepper, I made several attempts at rolling it up. Ultimately we found that putting the larger end of the slab inside the roll created a neater looking and more compact shape when all tied up. I may have gone overboard with my twine and knots, but as indicated in the book, "it can't be too tightly rolled."
Seventh step: Hanging. When we started to dry-cure our pancetta, our temperature was 70-75 degrees and the humidity was about 57%. (Optimal is 50-60 degrees with 60% humidity.) Nonetheless, we let our pancetta hang quietly in the dark for eight days, using our guest bathroom as a dry-curing room. It probably could have gone a few days longer, but we were uncertain about the high temperature.
Finished! Our final product, homemade pancetta turned out perfectly. We have already used it for lardons in salad, and a carbonara is definitely on the agenda soon...