Homemade Pancetta - Dry Cured Success

Dry-Cured Pancetta at Home
Pancetta success, divided into 1/2 pound rounds...

After my experience with fresh sausages, I wanted to up my charcuterie game. My first thought was to go right for dry cured sausages, but I figured it would be better to start simpler.

I wanted something that would be ready in weeks, not months, that wasn't a large financial investment, so I could see how hard it was to maintain proper temperature and humidity, before I got into a complex meat recipe. My first thought was guanciale, but then I realized I used both bacon and pancetta more. Bacon requires smoking, which I wasn't in the mood for, so pancetta it was.

I turned to the trusty book Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. It had served me very well for both pate and fresh sausages so I followed their recipe almost exactly - with the big exception of drying time. More on that later. First, I realized that I would need a cool but relatively humid place if I wanted to dry-cure meat. Ruhlman recommends 60 F and 60% humidity. Living in FL, those conditions do not naturally exist in my home so, after much cajoling of my skeptical husband, I bought a cheap little wine fridge, a hygrometer, and checked what environment I could maintain. The temp was no problem, and humidity ran closer to 70%, but it didn't worry me. If I opened the door once a day to let fresh air in (my home has a relative humidity of just under 50%) the humidity would stay around 60%, just perfect.

Pancetta is surprisingly easy to make at home. You start with a pork belly, or rather, half a pork belly, about 5 lbs. You need to remove the skin - I asked my butcher to do it, next time I'll try myself. You then make a spice mixture including a lot of salt, fresh thyme, pink salt (a curing agent that is salt and sodium nitrite), garlic, brown sugar, nutmeg, bay leaves and juniper berries.

Now, you are supposed to trim the belly to it is a perfect rectangle. This makes rolling and trussing much easier, which I learned the hard way when I didn't trim mine. Anyway, you take the seasoning mixture, rub it all over your pork belly, then put the meat in a big ziplock and in your fridge for the initial cure. I hit the restaurant supply store to get massive ziplocks and a clear covered container so I could avoid having the meat juices leak on accident in my fridge or contaminate anything.

Seasoned meat in bag...
And ready to go in the fridge.
The meat then sits in your fridge for a little more that a week for it's first cure. You just flip it and rub it every other day for a few seconds to check that the seasonings stay distributed and see how much the meat has firmed up. You are checking for uniform firmness throughout. It took mine 9 days to get to where I was sure it was ready.

Now it's time to get dry curing. You start by taking the meat out, rinsing it well under cold water and patting it dry.

After the first cure.
Rinsed and ready to proceed.

After the rinse, you sprinkle more black pepper on the meat-side (the inside of your future roll) and get rolling and trussing. As you can see, my belly isn't exactly even, which led to some frustration at this point, not to mention that it was my first ever trussing job. But I got the sucker rolled and tied and ready to hang.

My first truss.

I ran into a problem here, the future pancetta was too long to hang vertically in my wine fridge, so I had to hang it horizontally. In the end it made the pancetta a little deformed, but it all worked okay.

Pretty creepy looking, hanging there.
From here, I just needed to maintain temp and humidity until the meat was fully dry-cured, and I'd have pancetta. I checked it every day to be sure the conditions were good. The little wine fridge worked like a charm. My only worry now was knowing when it was really done. Most dry cured recipes give you a weight percentage to look for, like, wait until the meat has lost 35% of it's original weight. Ruhlman doesn't give you that. He just says it'll be done in two week, it should feel firm but pliable. Well, after two weeks, it was definitely firmer, but not as firm as the pancetta I buy. It smelled good though, meaty and sweet and salty all at the same time, and I got no mold or anything else funky, so I decided to give it an extra week.

That did the trick. When I pulled it out of the fridge, it definitely wasn't pretty to look at, but it felt right and smelled delicious. While I don't think of pancetta as a meat to eat raw, I can see why some people do.

And when I cut into the pancetta, I squealed with delight. The meat was dark and firm and shiny, and all the things you want dry cured meat to be.


I was so excited, I cut a thin round and immediately fried it to taste what had taken me a month to make.

Newly sliced test piece...
In the pan, frying until crisp.

And the flavor - hello meaty deliciousness. There was a fresher porkiness than I usually taste in store-bought pancetta, and there was definitely way more complexity, the juniper and thyme really enhanced the flavor. Eaten straight it was a bit salty, so I'm curious to see how it works in my usual recipes, it may be that I left it in the first cure too long. Time will tell. I've divided the pancetta into half pound portions, left one in the fridge for dinner tomorrow and popped the rest into my freezer. Can't wait to start cooking with it!

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