Make Your Own Pancetta
There’s something powerful about hacking apart a pig, slathering it with salt and spices, tying it up, and letting it hang in the cellar until covered with mold. “It shows what you’re capable of doing,” says Christine Mullen, executive chef of San Francisco’s CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen. “Not everybody can make their own salami and have a great product.”
The art of preserving or curing meat, charcuterie includes everything from pâtés and terrines to bacon and headcheese. Many chefs, like Mullen, are making their own in wine cellars and walk-ins across the country, turning previously undesirable pig parts into artisanal salamis, hams, and sausages. It’s a centuries-old European tradition that is experiencing a major renaissance.
Blame it on Batali and Bertolli. Mario Batali’s father, Armandino, operates a salumi shop in Seattle using skills he learned in Italy. When Mario opened Babbo in New York City in 1998, he began curing meats, too, using recipes his father helped to develop.
Paul Bertolli made his first charcuterie around 1982, while a chef at Chez Panisse. He later evangelized it at his annual Whole Hog Dinner menu at Oliveto in Oakland, California. His 2003 book Cooking by Hand contains an extensive chapter on curing pork that has inspired many chefs to give it a try.
“There’s a whole subculture in the food world that wants something authentic, wants something genuine, and wants to be transparent about it,” says Bertolli, who recently founded Fra’mani Handcrafted Salumi in Berkeley, California.
No two pieces of cured meat taste alike. The unique temperature, moisture, and mold conditions where each product hangs contribute to a subtle uniqueness that some compare to the terroir in wines. “These are products that you don’t put between mustard-slathered slabs of bread,” says Bertolli.
But there are dangers in the seemingly mystical transformation from raw to cured. If you don’t closely monitor temperatures, or if you use too little salt, harmful bacteria can flourish. For instance, homemade pancetta needs to be rolled very tightly, as pathogens can grow in air pockets.
Because of the risks, there are stringent health-code rules for charcuterie in most cities. In May, New York City health inspectors confiscated and destroyed several years’ and thousands of dollars’ worth of charcuterie after they found that the curing room at Il Buco was six degrees warmer than the health code allowed.
However, some chefs choose to break the rules. Mold flavors the meat, and to grow mold you need certain temperature and humidity levels—levels that the law might not always permit. “If you take [mold] . . . away, it’s just not gonna happen,” says Mullen. “You’re not gonna get the ‘wow’ factor.”
Here’s our recipe for homemade pancetta. It’ll make you feel powerful. Or at the very least, it will add bacony, fatty goodness to whatever it touches. Just don’t be scared of a little mold.
Photography by Susan Burdick. Illustration by Olivia Warnecke.