Pancetta, sometimes misspelled as panchetta or pancheta, is an Italian cured meat that’s absolutely delicious. Sometimes marked as “Italian bacon,” pancetta is a wonderful addition to salads, sandwiches, and party platters. If you’ve got an easily available local source of pancetta, you can also use it as a soup starter or quick way to flavor just about anything that you’re cooking with a healthy dose of porky goodness.
For me, pancetta fills all of these roles and more. It’s simple, no-frills meat that provides just what I want, whether it’s a rich, salty flavor in my cold dish or a quick injection of pork fat in my hot one. Having a container of pancetta in my fridge is an absolute lifesaver when it comes to making meal prep fast and easy.
If you’re not familiar with pancetta, don’t fret! Here’s everything you need to know about pancetta, from how it’s made to what to use it with.
What Is Pancetta?
People have been preserving meat for centuries. Pancetta is an old-fashioned style cured meat that’s made from pork belly that’s been aged in salt. It’s quite similar to bacon in a number of important ways, but the most important distinction is that pancetta is safer to eat raw than modern supermarket bacon. It’s usually sold rolled or cubed and can be served as part of an appetizer tray, on sandwiches, or as a topping for pizza or pasta. Pancetta is also frequently sauteed along with aromatics to start soups and other dishes.
Pancetta, The Italian Bacon
If you’re familiar with how bacon is made, you’ve probably realized that it’s quite similar to pancetta. Both pancetta and bacon are made with the same part of the pig, the belly. Bacon and pancetta are both cured, sliced thin, and then served. This means that you can safely substitute pancetta for bacon in most recipes. The reverse is also true, although there are some caveats. Pancetta is one of my favorite things to keep in the fridge due to how easy it is to quickly add to a frying pan to spice up a recipe. It’s much easier to add a small amount of pancetta than a small amount of bacon to a hot frying pan.
Pancetta vs Bacon
There are two big differences between pancetta and bacon. First, while pancetta and bacon are both cured, bacon is almost always smoked. Pancetta is sometimes smoked, but it’s not a guarantee. This means that bacon usually has additional smoky flavors, while pancetta often does not. If you’re looking for a way to add a complex, smoky flavor to a recipe, you’ll want to look for either bacon or a type of pancetta that’s been smoked.
The second difference has to do with food preservation. Both pancetta and bacon were originally made as a way to preserve meat for a long time. Before the advent of refrigerators, people had to carefully cure any meat that they didn’t want to eat immediately. The curing process that both pancetta and bacon undergo helps ensure that no harmful bacteria take up residence inside of the meat, even if it’s stored at roughly room temperature. This process also means that traditionally made bacon and pancetta are safe to eat raw.
These days, however, bacon isn’t necessarily fully cured. The bacon you buy at the supermarket is salted and smoked, sure, but there’s no guarantee that the curing process had drawn enough moisture out of the meat for it to be safely stored outside of the refrigerator. Eating raw bacon isn’t necessarily safe, either. It’s definitely something you can get away with, but you never know for sure if the curing process has actually made your bacon totally uninhabitable by bacteria.
Pancetta, by contrast, is still sold as a fully cured meat. You can store pancetta in a cellar or cool cupboard if you’d like, although it’s still safer to refrigerate it. Due to the lack of shortcuts in manufacturing pancetta, it’s usually safer to eat raw. Still, be safe! If your pancetta has been left out on a warm countertop for a few days or your body is especially vulnerable to food poisoning, you should avoid eating raw pancetta.
Can I Make Pancetta At Home?
Both pancetta and bacon can be made at home, although the process takes a while. To make pancetta, trim a pork belly, then cover it with a thick layer of salt, sugar, and seasonings like juniper berries and garlic. Place it in a plastic bag and refrigerate it for at least a week. You’ll know that it’s cured when the thickest point feels firm to the touch.
The next step is to dry your pancetta. Remove it from the fridge, rinse off your seasonings, and rub it lightly with some black pepper. For a traditional rolled presentation, roll the pancetta up very tightly and tie it up with string. It’s vital to eliminate any air pockets for a number of reasons. If you’re not interested in rolling your pancetta, simply wrap it in a cheesecloth and dry it for about a week.
In any case, the best way to dry pancetta is to hang it in a cold place that’s fairly humid for a couple weeks (if it’s rolled, flat pancetta dries in about five to seven days). Try to ensure it’s hung in a spot that stays between 50 and 60 F. This means a basement or cellar in the winter is a perfect spot to dry your pancetta. The ideal humidity is about 60 percent. If conditions are too dry, your pancetta will start to get hard and tough. Take it down immediately and refrigerate it if this starts to happen. Otherwise, let it dry out until it’s firm but still pretty bendy.
You don’t necessarily have to dry pancetta — the curing process alone is enough to make it safe to eat — but it’s a simple step that makes it much more pleasant to eat. The drying process makes the texture much better, makes the pancetta’s taste stronger, and ensures that it can be safely stored for a longer amount of time.
One additional thing to consider is the type of salt you use. Ideally, you want to cure your pancetta with a special kind of pink salt. This is a type of salt that’s got an additive called nitrate that helps ensure that your meat cures properly. It’s sold under names like “tinted cure mix” and “curing salt.” Note that this is different from fancy pink rock salt that you might buy for its purported health benefits.
Sodium nitrate might sound like a dangerous chemical, but it’s quite safe to consume. The current scientific consensus is that a moderate amount of sodium nitrate is actually healthy for you and can reduce your risk of heart attacks and other cardiovascular issues. It’s found abundantly in leafy greens like spinach, lettuce, and beets, You probably shouldn’t use pink curing salt on literally everything you eat, but it’s definitely safe to use in your pancetta.
Can I Eat Pancetta Raw?
Italians often consume pancetta raw. The pancetta you get in the US is normally safe to consume raw but may become unsafe if it’s stored improperly. In general, don’t consume raw pancetta if you think it’s a bad idea. This means you shouldn’t eat it if you don’t trust the source of the pancetta, you think it’s been improperly stored, you think it smells off, or you think you’re more susceptible to food-borne illness than the average person.
To ensure food safety, pancetta should be stored in the fridge. While the curing process means it’s probably safe to keep it in a cool cupboard or cellar, it’s best to be safe and take advantage of modern appliances.. If you’re storing pancetta for more than a few minutes, put it in an airtight container like a zip lock bag, plastic tub, or a tight wrapping of clingfilm. This will help reduce the amount of exposure your pancetta has to harmful bacteria.
One additional note: pancetta isn’t necessarily fun to eat raw if it’s not prepared properly. If you’re not in Europe, the pancetta may be too fatty to fully enjoy raw. Briefly examine your pancetta and consider removing any excessively large chunks of fat before presenting it to be served raw or using it raw in a sandwich or salad. This won’t take very long and will make it much more pleasant to eat.
Another trick to increase the enjoyment you get from eating raw pancetta is to slice it very thinly. Pancetta can be tough to chew otherwise. If it’s in thin, prosciutto-like slices, it’s quite enjoyable to much on in its uncooked form.
Can I Eat Bacon Raw?
Plenty of people eat bacon raw. Many of them do not live in the United States. The bacon that you find in a United States supermarket is not necessarily cured in a way that fully prohibits bacterial growth. It’s best to cook it before enjoying it. You probably won’t die if you eat a little raw bacon every once in a while, but it’s definitely not a habit you should get into without fully understanding the potential consequences.
What About Parasites?
Cured meats are nominally safe from parasites like tapeworms. This is because the curing process uses salt, nitrates, and sugar to draw lots of moisture from the meat. As the meat dries out, it stops being a good place for both bacteria and parasites to live. They’ll die off, meaning your meat will be safe to eat raw.
That said, you don’t necessarily know for sure that the pancetta or bacon that you buy is one-hundred-percent fully cured. If there’s any doubt about the preparation methods used on your cured meats or you’re especially worried about tapeworms, the best thing to do is to fully cook your meat.
Using Pancetta To Flavor Recipes
Many dishes, including soups, curries, chilis, and a number of pan-seared meats, start off by simmering aromatics like onions or garlic in fat. If you want to add a hint of pork flavor to your dish, consider using pancetta instead of your normal cooking fat It’s quite similar to starting off your recipe by cooking bacon and then using the bacon grease or lard as a cooking fat for the rest of your ingredients. The difference here is that pancetta is often sold cubed, making it very easy to simply throw a bit of pancetta in with your shallots, garlic, or onions. It’s a wonderful shortcut that I employ quite often in my home kitchen.
My favorite way to enjoy pancetta is in a simple sandwich. Toast your favorite sandwich bread lightly, then cover it in pancetta (cooked or raw), tomatoes, plenty of extra virgin olive oil, mozzarella, and ideally a bit of fresh basil or oregano. If you want a green sandwich, add some arugula, spinach, or lettuce. You can make this sandwich with cooked bacon if you prefer.
Pancetta is a wonderful addition to any salad. Try cooking it with shallots or onions and tossing it with plenty of greens and your favorite vinaigrette. Popular pairings include avocados, shallots, and cheese, although not usually at the same time.
One of the more famous dishes that involves pancetta is spaghetti carbonara. This is a simple dish that’s often made with bacon in the States. Here’s a full recipe for this classic pancetta-based dish.
Spaghetti Carbonara Ingredients
1 16 oz box spaghetti
4 large eggs
about 1 cup grated Italian cheese, like Parmesan or pecorino Romano
4 oz pancetta or bacon
salt and pepper to taste
Spaghetti Carbonara Instructions
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. As you do this, fill a large bowl with hot water to keep it warm. Set the bowl aside for now.
- While you wait for the water to boil, whisk the cheese and eggs together in a cold bowl. Add some salt and pepper to season this mixture.
- Saute the pancetta over medium heat until the fat begins to melt. You want this to be just a little bit crispy. Once it’s at the right texture, remove the pan from the heat and wait for your pasta to finish.
- Once your water has boiled, cook the pasta until it’s al dente. Ladle about a cup of pasta water into a container for later use, then drain the pasta and add it to the skillet with your pancetta. Stir this together until the pasta is lightly coated in pork fat.
- Pour the hot water out of your large bowl. Add the pasta and cheese and stir everything together. If you’d like to make things a bit more creamy, add some of the reserved pasta water (the dissolved starches will make this thicker than regular water). Serve your carbonara immediately with a bit of extra grated cheese on top.
Here’s another simple recipe that takes full advantage of all of pancetta’s advantages. Be sure to use the flat type of pancetta for this dish, rather than the cubed kind. It’s quite difficult to wrap a chicken breast in small cubes!
Pancetta Wrapped Chicken Ingredients
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
Enough pancetta slices to wrap the chicken fully (about 25)
12 oz cheese (your choice)
salt and pepper to taste
Pancetta Wrapped Chicken Instructions
- Preheat your oven to 400 F.
- Butterfly the chicken breasts. Smash them out thin with a mallet or a kitchen tool wrapped in clingfilm.
- Fold each smashed breast over about 3 ounces of cheese. You’re free to use any type of cheese you like. I’m a fan of mozzarella, gorgonzola, or even cheddar. Some people like to add cranberry sauce or jam at this point to sweeten up the dish.
- Lay out the pancetta slices and tightly wrap each chicken breast with them. Assemble your breasts in an oven safe baking dish and season with salt and pepper. Bake for about 25 minutes or until the chicken is fully cooked and the cheese is melted.
- Serve with your favorite vegetables and carbs.
Wrapping Other Meats WIth Pancetta
Pancetta is often sold in thinner, wider slices than bacon, making it an ideal meat to wrap things in before you cook them. This might include steaks, pork loins, chicken breasts (as above), or even peppers. Try wrapping your favorite meats in pancetta to add plenty of juicy pork flavor with virtually zero effort.
Pancetta As An Appetizer
You’re probably familiar with the concept of a party tray, but do you know how to perfect one? Thinly sliced pancetta is a perfect accent to any appetizer that involves fruit, cheese, or crackers. You can cut fruits like apples, pears, or peaches into small squares and wrap them in pancetta, drizzle them with a vinaigrette, and serve them with fresh basil for a treat that will wow any foodie you encounter. In particular, peaches are a trendy companion to pancetta and are quite easy to find at your local supermarket.
Prosciutto vs Pancetta
Like pancetta, prosciutto is a type of cured Italian pork. Unlike pancetta, however, it’s made from the hind leg of a pig, not the belly. Prosciutto is almost always served uncooked and is typically cured for much longer than pancetta. It’s generally presented in very thin slices and can be found accompanying other meats and cheeses in appetizer platters and party trays. Other common uses tend to involve pizza, salad, pasta, or sandwiches, much like pancetta.
The most obvious difference between prosciutto and pancetta is that prosciutto tends to be leaner. Prosciutto is also sold in thin slices almost all of the time, while pancetta is sometimes sold as cubes or as a wrapped tube. This means that prosciutto tends to be “ready to eat” almost all of the time, while pancetta might require a bit of preparation before you can serve it raw. If you’re adding something to a frying pan, however, pancetta is usually the superior choice.
Can I Substitute Bacon for Pancetta?
Bacon and pancetta are very similar. While you can sometimes taste a difference, there’s usually very little harm in substituting one for the other. In fact, smoked pancetta is so similar to bacon that it’s likely you wouldn’t notice a substitution. Here’s a quick rundown of what you can substitute when.
If your recipe calls for bacon and you have pancetta, you can substitute pancetta for the bacon with no problems. The only thing you might miss out on is a smoky taste that’s normally imparted by the smoked bacon. Smoked pancetta is a near-perfect substitute. Normal pancetta works just fine, but your dish might taste very subtly less complex.
If your recipe calls for pancetta and you have bacon, there are two things to consider. First, is your bacon smoked in a particularly flavorful way? If so, you might add additional unwanted flavors to your recipe by using it in place of un-smoked pancetta. Consider blanching your bacon in boiling water for a few seconds in order to wash off a bit of the smoky flavor. Be aware that this blanching process will often take a lot of fat off of your bacon. You may need to add a bit of oil to keep your recipe’s frying pan lubricated.
Second, does your recipe involve cooking the pancetta? If so, you’re totally fine to use bacon from a food safety perspective. Simply cook it the same way! If not, however, make sure that you’re using bacon that’s been cured in a way that makes raw consumption safe. Consider simply cooking the bacon in any case. It’ll still taste like bacon if you put it in the oven until it’s reached a safe temperature, and you can definitely keep bacon soft and pliable by cooking it for a longer amount of time over low heat.
Other substitutes for pancetta might include regular old pork or ham, prosciutto, or even an unrelated deli meat, like turkey. Again, keep food safety in mind. In most cases, swapping pancetta out for a different meat will make your dish taste different, but it will still be just as delicious.
Can I Substitute Pancetta for Prosciutto?
This one is a little bit more complicated. Pancetta is a lot fattier than prosciutto and is not always packaged in a form that’s pleasant to eat raw. On the other hand, prosciutto tends to be fairly lean and is almost always sold in very thin slices that are delightful to eat cold. Both types of meat are very similar, however, so you can certainly substitute one for the other if you’re mindful of these differences.
In other words, you’ll want to slice pancetta very thinly if you want to substitute it for prosciutto. Make sure you’ve got high-quality, properly cured pancetta that’s not too fatty to enjoy. If the recipe calls for cooking your prosciutto, you don’t have to be quite as careful. Keep an eye out for excess pork fat, however, as pancetta might give your dish a little too much grease. If you’re worried about this, simply trim your pancetta before you add it to your dish.
Where Can I Buy Pancetta?
Many grocery stores have a section dedicated to meats and cheese that will include fancier selections like salami, pancetta, and prosciutto. Look for pre-packaged pancetta there. It’s usually sold both rolled and cubed.
You can also buy pancetta in many delis, from your local butcher, or sometimes from the meat counter at your supermarket. Even if pancetta isn’t a common request, the folks behind the counter will often be happy to make it for you. If this is the case, be aware that you may need to buy a fairly large roll of pancetta to make things work out for everyone. This style of pancetta tends to be sold in a large roll wrapped in butcher paper.
Finally, even if your butcher won’t sell you pancetta, he or she will almost certainly sell you a pork belly. Refer to the section above about making pancetta yourself at home. It’ll eat up a bit of fridge space for a week or two, but the process is quite easy and takes very little effort. All you need to do is pick up some curing salt, which is available very cheaply online.
Pancetta: The Italian Bacon
Made from the same part of the pig as bacon, pancetta is a cured meat that’s very versatile in the kitchen. It’s a perfect starter for soups, stews, and savory dishes, and it makes a great addition to sandwiches, salads, and appetizer trays. Pancetta’s savory, meaty flavor makes it an Italian favorite and ensures that you’ll love adding to your kitchen. Be sure to look for it at your local supermarket, ask your butcher if it’s something he or she can make for you, or consider making it yourself. It’ll make many of your favorite recipes a whole lot easier.