Originally published fall 2009.
When my friend Heidi Robb asked recently to split some hog belly from Tea Hill Farms, I thought pancetta, and said, "You bet!" I didn't really need it, but it is a personal moral imperative that, when offered pork belly, I must accept pork belly. Also, I was low on pancetta, a grievous situation to be sure.
Happily I had some "Basic Dry Cure" on hand, so it literally took me less than five minutes to have the belly curing in the fridge. The same stuff I have on hand for homemade bacon.
This is all covered in Charcuterie, and in more depth in Salumi, but I hope to encourage people here by saying that there is no reason home cooks shouldn't regularly be curing their own bacon. Especially given such wonderful era in food, a time when I can go to my farmer's market in this rust belt city and buy belly of a hand-raised pig. You will have to mail order pink salt, sodium nitrite, but it's very inexpensive if you get it from butcher-packer.com. Strictly speaking you don't need it for safety in this case, but the pancetta won't have quite the same flavor and it will turn gray when you cook it.
The basic dry cure consists only of kosher salt, sugar, and pink salt. I make a pound and a half of it and store it in a plastic container. You can cure just about any of the thinner cuts by simply by dredging the meat in this mixture and adding aromatics. I've never tried it with, say, flank steak, but you could and you'd have a form of really easy corned beef (aromats for which would include pepper, mustard seed, chilli flakes, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, ginger along with basic dry cure—hm, that's a really good idea! Will have to try this!).
So, so good. I took the skin off some of it (to use when cooking beans or making stock). But the first thing I did was to wrap two thick slabs in foil and roast them for a couple hours at 250 degrees to make them tender. I chilled them till I was ready to cook them: I sauteed them till they were crispy on both sides, then cut them into bite sized pieces and served them as an hors d'oeuvres when some friends came over for cocktail. The slow roasting in an enclosed (therefore moist) environment, followed by searing, is a great technique, results in meltingly tender bite with the crispy exterior (and no loss of flavor to a braising liquid). No end to what you can pare with this, with scallops, with peas, with braised greens, beneath a poached egg, or even as the featured ingredient in what would be a most excellent BLT!
No excuses, if you like to cook, for not curing your own pancetta.
Basic Dry Cure from Charcuterie
1 pound/450 grams kosher salt (2 cups Morton's coarse kosher salt)
8 ounces/225 grams sugar (about 1 cup)
2 ounces/50 grams pink salt (10 teaspoons)
Combine and mix till pink salt is uniformly distributed. Store indefinitely in air-tight container.
5 pounds pork belly
basic dry cure as needed (½-1/2 cup)
aromatics as desired (garlic, bay leaves, pepper)
To make pancetta, salt the belly liberally with the basic dry cure; it should have a uniform coating on it, almost as if you'd dredged the belly. Put the belly in a two-gallon zip-top bag and add brown sugar (a quarter cup or so should do it), garlic, peppercorns (preferably toasted and cracked in a mortar or beneath a saute pan), bay leaf, and if you happen to have them on hand, coriander seeds (also toasted and cracked), thyme, juniper berries. Rub this stuff around on the belly, seal the bag, and store it in the refrigerator for a week, turning it and redistributing the cure at least every other day.
After 7 days (9 if it's a very fat piece, more than 2.5 inches), remove it from the bag, rinse all the cure off it, cut a hole in one corner and hang it to dry for a week. And there is your pancetta (unsmoked bacon).