Bacon, pancetta & other cured pork products

Even though we do not eat it on a regular basis, I always have bacon in my freezer. Not only do we love the taste and how versatile it can be in cooking, my husband makes his own bacon. So, our freezer always has a nice supply.

Bacon is something that is called a “cured pork product”. Curing is a method of preserving meat by removing moisture. The process makes it less hospitable for pathogens. It starts with salt, which is often mixed with nitrites and/or nitrates. These are used to ensure that the bacteria that produces the toxin responsible for botulism cannot grow. They also speed up the curing process, are what give the meat the pinkish color and add to flavor and texture. Curing also often involves smoking. Cured meat products may be cooked as in luncheon meats or uncooked as in bacon.

Bacon

In the US, bacon is a cured, lightly smoked pork belly. (In other countries, what they call “bacon” is made from other cuts of meat.) US bacon has a decent fat content but less salt than other cured pork products. Bacon can be cured in either a wet or a dry brine. The brine contains salt, sugar (honey, molasses, brown sugar, maple syrup, etc.) and a spice mixture. Nitrite is usually added either as a synthesized product (here is one example) or naturally occurring nitrates/nitrites derived from celery powder. Bacon is also smoked after the curing process.

Pancetta

We often refer to pancetta as “Italian bacon” but it is different. Similarly to bacon, it is made from the pork belly but is more heavily cured and has a higher salt content. It is usually not smoked but is seasoned with a mixture of garlic, black pepper, juniper berries and thyme. There is one form of pancetta that is smoked – pancetta affumicata. However, it still differs from bacon in its higher salt content and more curing.

There are two forms of pancetta – arrotolata and tesa. The former comes rolled into a log while tesa comes in a slab form, similar to bacon. Some experts recommend against buying the pre-sliced pancetta, which is often what we find in our supermarkets. They say they are usually of a lower quality and are less flavorful than pancetta that has not been pre-portioned. Of course, if that is all your stores carry, it is probably better than trying to substitute.

Prosciutto

This product comes from the hind leg of the pig with a curing process that lasts from a few months to a few years. This is one of the products that is typically eaten without cooking.

Prosciutto (made from the back leg of the pig) or dry cured ham comes in two different styles:  prosciutto cotto (cooked) or prosciutto crudo (uncooked). The former is bright pink and has a lighter flavor than the uncooked product. Although uncooked, crudo is cured and safe to eat as is. It is redder in color and more intensely flavored.

Salt Pork

This cut comes from the lower portion of the pork belly and is usually almost all fat with only a small layer of lean protein. This product is more heavily salted than bacon.

Guanciale

This word comes from the Italian guancia, meaning cheek. As the name implies, it comes from the pig jowl. This product will probably only be found in specialty butcher shops. It is often flavored with black pepper and herbs. However, the meat itself tastes different than the cuts from the belly. It is an extremely fatty product and is what gives the product its unique flavor. These unique characteristics mean it is very difficult to find an adequate substitute.

Lardo

This is made from the fat on the back of the pig (fatback). It is salt-cured and seasoned with herbs. This product is pure cured pork fat.

Substituting

When you are thinking about substituting these products for each other, there are some differences that should be considered.

  • Fat content
    Whereas bacon and pancetta are similar in fat content, guanciale has considerably more fat. Salt pork is almost all fat while lardo is 100% fat.
  • Smoking
    Bacon is a smoked product where as pancetta and guanciale are not.
  • Salt content
    If you do not take this into consideration, you could ruin your dish with too much salt. Pancetta, due to the curing process, will have a higher salt content than bacon. Prosciutto has an even higher salt content.

Nitrites/Nitrates

Although the discussion of the safety of nitrites/nitrates is outside the scope of this Cooking Tip, I will just mention a few items for consideration.

The cancer warning from many years ago has not stood up to the test of time and scientific sources do note that there are health benefits to these chemicals. Most of the nitrites/nitrates we eat are from natural sources – mostly vegetables such as lettuce, celery, and carrots. There is a debate, though, whether the synthetically derived compounds are worse for us than the natural ones. I will leave that debate to you to investigate.

If you are a cured meat lover, you may want to try to make your own as my husband does with bacon. I, for one, am not interested in that skill as there are plenty of great products in the market. Do you have a favorite? Let me know.