It’s streaky and salty and, when cooked to a crisp, it is delightful by itself, tossed with pasta or used as sandwich filling. Is it bacon or pancetta? How can you tell?
Pancetta is often referred to as Italian bacon but is it really that simple? Is the difference in name and regional origin only? No, of course not. But before going into the difference, let’s start with what bacon and pancetta have in common.
American bacon and pancetta are both made with pork belly
Yes, pork belly. If it’s made from any other part of the pig, it’s not American bacon nor pancetta. Okay, let’s make that clear. If the bacon was not made with pork belly, it is not American bacon. BUT it may be considered bacon in some other parts of the world if it had undergone the traditional curing process for bacon.
And just where in the world is bacon not made with pork belly? In England, Ireland and Canada, to name a few places, where they have “back bacon.”
What is “back bacon”?
Well, that depends on where you are. If you’re in Canada, the back bacon is made from the eye of the loin. It’s very lean and rarely contains any fat around the edges.
If you’re in England or Ireland, back bacon is a cross between Canadian bacon and American bacon. The cut includes part of the belly AND part of the loin. It’s less fatty than American bacon but not as lean as Canadian bacon.
Okay, so from this point, we’re just differentiating American bacon from pancetta.
Bacon is smoked; pancetta is not
Both bacon and pancetta are cured meats. By “cure”, there is no medication involved. Curing is a method of food preservation by which salt, nitrates and sugar are rubbed generously on the meat to draw out moisture and to flavor it as well via osmosis.
Curing bacon goes a step farther by smoking the meat. This step is absent in making pancetta.
The level of saltiness is NOT a factor in differentiating bacon from pancetta. The curing ingredients — including the amount of salt — varies from one recipe to the next.
Bacon and pancetta are both raw and they require cooking
The smoking that bacon undergoes is “cold smoking” where no heat is involved. The meat, therefore, stays raw.
If the meat is air-died and aged, it is not bacon. It may be ham, as in the case of prosciutto, the Italian ham which, after curing and aging may be eaten as is without cooking.
Bacon and pancetta are raw meat, and both require cooking.
Bacon and pancetta can both be thinly sliced or cut into cubes
How the pork belly is cut after curing does not determine whether it is bacon or pancetta. Both can be can be cut into slices, thickly or ultra-thinly, or into cubes.
Neither does rolling and tying the pork belly prior to curing make it pancetta. While rolling and tying are requirements for making porchetta, they are not indispensable in the preparation of pancetta.
Yes, bacon and pancetta can be interchanged in cooking
The million dollar question that every cook wants to know. Can bacon and pancetta be used interchangeably? In its broadest sense, yes. However, if a dish benefits from smokiness, then, bacon over pancetta may be the smart way to go.
Now, try cooking spaghetti alla carbonara.
With pancetta or bacon?
If one theory about the origin of carbonara is to be believed, it ought to be bacon, not pancetta.