Monday, January 26, 2009

Romancing the Swine III: Pancetta

As kitchen projects go, curing pork products, while time-consuming, is easy and fun. This time around, I tried my hand at pancetta, a dry-cured preparation of pork belly which is basically an un-smoked Italian version of bacon. Sauteed pancetta makes for a great addition to salads and soups, and can be used as a substitiute for guanciale in Sugo All'amatriciana. Here's how it's done:

First, get your hands on a pork belly. I used a half belly, which worked out to a little over five pounds:

Next, prepare your dry-cure ingredients:

The dry cure is basically salt, pepper, sugar, herbs and spices. In this case, because the pancetta is dried at room temperature, pink salt is required as well, to ward off botulism. I'm not talking about the pink sea salt that comes from Hawaii here, by the way. This pink salt is sodium nitrite, and it's not naturally pink, but rather it's dyed to keep folks from mixing it up with regular salt. The reason for that is that sodium nitrite is not something you want to consume a lot of. It's been found to be carcinogenic in large amounts, and has been linked to lung disease as well. But for the occasional curing project, I'm willing to employ it, as botulism is really not to be messed around with. If you don't want to use the pink salt, you can always rig up a system for drying the belly in the fridge (see my guanciale post). If you do go with the pink salt, but can't find it in your immediate area, you can order it online from Butcher & Packer. I used the dry-cure recipe, pink salt and all, from Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's book Charcuterie, which is an excellent reference. However, if the economy is doing you in and you can't afford bookstore purchases at the moment, the recipe can be found here.

Rub the belly with the dry cure on both sides and place it into a two gallon Ziploc bag (if you can find them, otherwise Glad oven bags work as well):

Put this into the refrigerator for one to two weeks, turning it over every other day to evenly distribute the cure. Once the belly is relatively firm to the touch, wash off the cure under cold water and dry it completely. Then coat the meat side with cracked pepper, roll it along its length fat side out and tie it up with butcher's twine:

Now you're ready to hang it at room temperature and let it dry. As I live in a funky old house with microbes and assorted vermin running about (even when we're doing our best to keep the place clean), I built a box out of 1X1s and masonite, covered it with hardware cloth and cheesecloth, hung the pancetta inside of that, and placed the whole thing in the pantry. I propped it up on bricks added a bowl of boiling water underneath it every couple of days to keep the humidity up. After three weeks, I ended up with what you see up at the top of the post. A small amount of white mold had begun to grow at the ends, which I trimmed away (white mold is all right, black mold is definitely bad). And that was pretty much that. Like I said, time-consuming but easy. Give it a shot if you're so inclined!

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