If there weren’t already enough reasons to love pork in all its various guises, add bacon to the list, as well as its Italian cousin, pancetta. They are two of the most versatile and satisfying ingredients in the kitchen and have been revered for centuries in one form or another in virtually every country that raises pigs for food.
In Italy, from whence pancetta hails, pancetta comes in many forms, and is highly regarded. It is used both to flavor other foods, such as soups, sauces, and stews, as well as a component of a traditional antipasto assortment. So too with our own bacon that is a great flavor provider, as well as its role as a center-of-the-plate protein.
Bacon’s stance as a staple ingredient in kitchens across the country suffered some during the past couple of decades as people turned away from fat and began opting instead for bacon substitutes made from such things as turkey and soy. The low-carb phenomenon at the turn of the last century had people joyously turning back to bacon. As he points out in his wonderful book, Bruce Aidell’s Complete Book of Pork (HarperCollins), the aroma of cooking bacon is so alluring, it’s rare that anyone — including low-fat dieters and even vegetarians — can turn up their nose at a plate of freshly cooked bacon.
Bacon & Pancetta: Curing What Ails You
Both bacon and pancetta are cured pork products. In other words, they are not cooked but neither are they raw. Since they are made in slightly different ways, we’ll look at the two individually.
The word ‘bacon,’ which came to us circuitously linguistically speaking from Middle English from Old French and finally from a German term that basically means “ham” or “flitch,” meaning a slab. Prior to the 17th century, especially in England, bacon meant any pork — fresh or cured, but gradually came to mean the cured and usually smoked meat that we think of today. Although our tradition of bacon comes mainly from England, bacon in North America is made primarily from the belly of the animal, whereas in England, it can be from various cuts, including the back and the sides, and is often sold in slabs rather than the more common pre-sliced variety we are used to. In fact, the Brits refer to the type of bacon we eat as “streaky bacon,” which doubtless refers to the streaks of fat common in bacon.
Curing bacon is a relatively simple matter. The cut to be used is first cured in a sugar and salt solution. As we said, the cut used most often in the North America is the lean meat from the belly of the pig. The curing process can be accomplished in different ways, depending upon the producer. Some submerge the meat in a bath, while others inject the liquid curing solution into the meat. After a period of time in which the salt and sugar do their thing — that is, drawing out the excess moisture and keeping any harmful bacteria at bay, the meat is moved to the smokehouse. This step perhaps more than any other gives bacon its identifiable flavor and distinguishes it from pancetta. Typically, the slabs of bacon-to-be are hung on racks and slowly smoked over hardwood or fruitwood embers, and where the excess grease drips down off the meat. In a truly down-home and artisanal approach, one Wisconsin bacon producer has relationships with local farmers who, after culling their apple orchards, bring the wood to the smokehouse in trade for bacon or other products.
The most significant difference between bacon and pancetta is that the latter is almost never smoked, but they are often used in much the same way, that is as a flavor additive to other dishes, especially soups and sauces. In her excellent book, Prosciutto, Pancett, and Salame (Ten Speed Press), author Pamela Sheldon Johns points out that pancetta basically is made two different ways (although many subtle regional differences exist as well): In a slab that is used almost exclusively for flavoring other foods, and the rolled type that often finds itself as part of an antipasto selection or in the delicious and simple panini, or little sandwiches that are found throughout Italy. The kind of rolled pancetta that is made in Italy can be eaten as is without cooking, or at least the Italians are not afraid to eat it. The kind that is made in the United States and Canada needs to be cooked. That fact doesn’t seem to be a product of our squeamishness towards raw-looking food. Most chefs and knowledgeable food people agree that domestic pancetta should always be cooked before it is eaten.
Johns described the process in which pancetta is made. “From region to region the name changes, but the flavor is always a pleasant combination of sweet and salty. The usual curing method is to coat it with salt or soak it in brine for a week to ten days, then rinse it with wine vinegar and reseason with salt and pepper. It is then aged for at least thirty days in a temperature- and humidity-controlled place. Some versions are also smoked.” Johns goes on to describe several regional variations, almost none of which are imported to the United States, but that, by all means, should be sought out when travelling in Italy.
Spain also makes a version of bacon, or more accurately, pancetta, called tocino de pancetta. The word pancetta comes from pancia, meaning “belly,” and either the Spanish version was learned from Italians (or Romans) or they both stem from the original Latin. Either way, this type of curing of pork is common throughout European countries where pigs are a dominant source of food. Originally, all this would have occurred in the winter months when the temperature would protect the meat during the initial stages of curing. With modern refrigeration, of course, curing can go on throughout the year, both here and in Europe.
Wrapping it Up
Most of us think of bacon in terms of breakfast as an accompaniment to eggs, or as a component in a bacon cheeseburger. Add to that the odd casserole here and there and the occasional BLT, and you have a pretty good idea of the extent to which one of the greatest of all cured meats is consumed in this country. More the pity because bacon and pancetta are extremely versatile in cooking, and their inclusion makes almost anything taste better. The following are a few suggestions for how bacon and pancetta can kick it up a notch.
- Use a slab of bacon or pancetta (about an inch thick) to saute in a soup pot with other aromatics like celery, carrot, onions, or leeks when beginning a soup. The meat doesn’t necessarily have to stay in the final soup, but it will add enormous flavor to the whole thing.
- Not making soup from scratch? Crumble pieces of cooked bacon into ready-to-eat soups, especially creamy soups like tomato, corn, or potato-leek.
- An old steakhouse favorite is a wedge of iceberg lettuce slathered with creamy blue cheese dressing and topped with bits of freshly cooked bacon. Crispy bacon can enliven most salads and can turn a simple mixed green salad into a main course for a light dinner.
- One of the greatest uses for bacon or pancetta is when they are wrapped around some other food. As Ms. Johns points out in her book, it’s a great way to not only add flavor but also moisture to very lean cuts of meat, such as quail, lean cuts of pork, or rabbit. Pieces of pancetta can also be inserted into the meat, much as one would do with garlic cloves. This is particularly effective with things like rabbit when you want to keep it whole.
- For some amazing, crowd-pleasing appetizers that can be served in the store or presented as ideas to your shoppers, first blanche strips of bacon in boiling water for about a minute and then mop off any excess water with a paper towel. Then simply wrap the strips around either fresh dates or shrimp. Place them in a very hot oven or under the broiler, turning them once, until they are golden brown and the bacon is fully cooked — about five minutes. The sweet and salty, crispy and soft textural sensation is divine and your guests will think you are a genius. Don’t dissuade them.
- Bacon or pancetta are also wonderful additions to all sorts of souffles, quiches (use it instead of ham in a classic quiche Lorraine), and on pasta. Spaghetti Carbonara (very likely named for the restaurant Carbonara on the Campo di Fiori in Rome where it is routinely served) was developed as a quick pasta dish during the years after World War II when American GIs in Rome yearned for their bacon and eggs. A clever cook combined freshly cooked spaghetti with a raw egg, bits of pancetta, salt, and pepper (I add a little cream as well), ingredients that essentially cook in the hot pasta. It’s a wonderful dish to make at home when it’s late and no one feels like cooking.
- In the same vein, try making an Italian-style frittata (what would be called a tortilla in Spain) with pancetta that is first sauteed in butter, olive oil, or both, to which is then added several freshly beaten eggs. Allow it to set up on the bottom, about two minutes, and then either flip the omelette over or slide the whole pan under the broiler to finish the top to a nice golden brown.