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How to make pancetta… starting with a five-hundred-year-old pig

November 21, 2011 2 comments

OK, the pig itself was not 500 years old.  But my pancetta project started 5 centuries ago, give or take.

Pancetta, for the uninitiated, is an Italian version of “bacon”.  It starts with a pork belly, but unlike American bacon, it is salt-cured (along with garlic, pepper and other spices), not smoked.    Pancetta is typically cubed and rendered to provide flavor for any number of dishes, and to my taste is more enjoyable than American bacon, mainly because it tastes more “porky”.

Ossabaws at Cane Creek Farm, the place we bought our breeding stock.

Before I became determined to make pancetta, I became infatuated with a hog.  Not just any hog, an Ossabaw Island hog.  These pigs are descendants of the legendary Iberica swine, and were deposited by the Spaniards on Ossabaw Island, off the coast of Georgia, in the 1500’s.  As an isolated, feral herd, they are now the most genetically  pure European swine on the planet.  These are not your ordinary industrial hogs.

Fortunately for me (who lacks a farm), I have a friend as crazy as I am.  Bruce is the fourth generation on his Hillsborough, NC farm, and he agreed to raise a some Ossabaws.  We bought some gilts from Cane Creek Farm in Snowcamp, NC, later found a boar from another farmer, and soon enough we had piglets.  Bruce’s young son took care of the piglets, and in October we harvested the pig that was subject of this post.

While our piglets were bulking up, a couple of food bloggers created the Charcutapalooza Challenge.  The gist of it is that they proposed one charcuterie challenge per month, and dangled a big prize for the person who completed all the projects in an exemplary way.  They managed to get Michael Ruhlman, author of the amazing book Charcuterie, to be a consultant to the project.  As soon as I saw the project I knew I needed to be involved.

Sadly, however, I’ve only had time for one challenge – duck prosciutto – till now.  I posted on that one several months ago.  In some ways, knowing that I can’t compete for the prize was liberating.  I am now free to focus on my art, the way I want to.  And I thought that it would be pretty unusual for anyone to make Ossabaw pancetta, let alone from a pig they’ve grown.  In addition, I decided I would do the hog processing myself.  Here’s the photo tutorial.

It all starts with a hog. Bruce wisely talked me into letting him take the hog to be killed, scalded, and halved. The harvesting itself isn't such a big job, but the scalding is. So this half hog is how I took delivery of the pig. Note the beautiful fat on this pig, including the leaf lard in the viscera.

Here's the mid-section of the hog after I liberated the ham and shoulder. Since this isn'a post about how to butcher a hog, I'll focus just on the task of separating the belly that we'll turn into pancetta. Note that you don't need a lot of heavy cutting equipment to butcher an animal - a sharpening steel, a good boning knife, and a bone saw will do the job.

We start by separating the loin from the belly. We'll separate out the tenderloin, then turn the loin itself into three roasts.

We isolate the belly by removing the ribs. I also trimmed off a lot of the excess fat (which I retained for more lard). This belly is now ready for curing.

Bruce was enthusiatic to have me turn his half of the hog into pancetta, too, hence there are two bellies here. Bruce's is a little oddly shaped because he was a little more aggressive about separating the ham from the loin. The glasses contain the curing spice mixture specified by Ruhlman: Instacure #1, pepper, garlic, bay leaves, nutmeg, thyme and crushed juniper berries. Ruhlman also calls for brown sugar, which I forgot. But I was very happy with the outcome, and would probably omit sugar on the future, too.

Here are the bellies with the curing rub on them. From here they went into a giant Ziploc, and into my reach-in to cure for a while. Ruhlman said a week, but I let them go for three weeks, just because I didn't have time to take them out sooner. I did take them out once or twice for overhauling (rubbing the spices into the meat).

After three weeks in the reach-in, the meat was ready to roll and cure. First step was to rinse off the spice mixture, and trim them to an appropriate size for rolling.

Pretty simple now... cut, and roll tightly. You could add extra seasoning now, but I didn't.

Now tie the roll TIGHT. If you don't know how to tie a roast, see this video: http://video.about.com/homecooking/Tie-a-Roast.htm

Once they're all tied, hang them in a cool place out of direct sunlight. Ideal conditions are 50-60F and 50-60% RH. Because pancetta is cooked, hanging to cure can be an inexact science.

Because the weather in NC is highly variable (and warm for several days at a time), I built a simple curing chamber out of a dorm fridge. Basically I hijacked the controls and added humidification capability. It needs dehumidification, too. Next project.

After two weeks of curing, they were ready to slice and store. The vinegar was used to wipe off small bits of chalky white mold. I checked them every few days while curing and wiped off small mold spots when they popped up (which they did, because of the high humidity while I was curing). White mold is no problem. Green and black mold is the stuff you worry about, and I didn;t see any of that.

Here it is, all sliced up, ready to package. Beautiful, isn't it?

Couldn't resist a close-up.

Vacuum seal and store for 6 months, easy.

Now that you see how to make the pancetta, let’s do something with it: pasta carbonara.

Cube a wheel or two of that pancetta.

Render it.

Cook some pasta. Yes, I was lazy and used boxed pasta. Sue me. Be sure to reserve a little of the water from boiling the pasta (maybe 1/2 - 1 cup), you'll need it later.

Get some other stuff ready: a big hunk of butter (1/8-1/4 lb), a big mound of hard cheese (2 cups pecorino romano), a couple eggs, and wine (optional, for drinking, not cooking).

Heat a big pan in the oven while the pasta is cooking. When pasta is al dente, throw the butter in the hot pan to melt.

Add the pasta, cheese, and eggs to the hot pan with butter. Yes, one of my eggs was a double-yolker. Bonus.

Mix well, adding a little retained pasta water till consistency is correct. Normally I would have added pancetta in same step, but I have one vegetarian in the house, so I mix it up veg and plate hers first.

Add the pancetta, mix well.

Plate and enjoy!

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Charcutepalooza: Duck proscuitto, Step 2

It’s been 24 hours since I broke down my duck and salted the breast for proscuitto.  It’s time clean it, dry it, wrap it, tie it and hang it.  This is one of those times I miss my dad (more than other times) – that man was an idiot savant with ropes and cords, there was nothing he couldn’t lash, secure, bind and make beg for mercy.  Me, I’m not so good with knots and ropes.  So I checked my volumes of books (no luck), but found a good video on how to tie a roast HERE.

Here’s my pictorial on step 2 of the process:

Here's the breast coming out of the salt. I was amazed at how much water the salt had pulled out - about 22 grams by my later weighing. After pulling it from the salt, rinse well and pat dry.

Here's the breast, rinsed and dried. You can see how I scored the skin to let the salt through. You can also tell this was a fairly lean duck - many of them have skin on the breast approaching an inch thick.

Here's the carcass side of the breast. You can see how the salt has darkened the flesh, and its consistency is more rubbery.

A salted breast, some cheesecloth and a length of kitchen twine. This is all the technology needed for a miraculous transformation over the next week.

Here we are wrapped like a mummy and ready for twine.

Trussed up like a duck.

Hung in my special place in the garage (the broom rack). There is a paper in the loop with the weight on it (447 g all wrapped and tied). It will be done in about 7 days, when the weight is reduced by about 30% (so our goal is 315 grams: 439 dry weight * 0.7 = 307, plus 8 grams for cheesecloth and twine: 447 g wrapped - 439 g unwrapped = 8 g of cloth and twine)

Update in about one week!

Charcutepalooza: Duck Proscuitto, Step 1

Better late than never, I always say.  Right before I left for Nicaragua at the beginning of February, I learned of an incredible… “movement” I think is the word.  Mrs. Wheelbarrow, of Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen fame, along with her pal at the Yummy Mummy, dreamed up a contest.  A wonderful contest they call Charcutepalooza.  The gist of it is that they lay out a charcuterie challenge every month, which is then taken up by food bloggers all over the country.  We blog about the results, and somebody wins a trip to France.  A trip to France… for making cured meat.  Is that great, or what?

Well, to win the prize, you have to do the challenge every month, and blog about it by the 15th of the month.  Since I found out about the thing on February 1st, and was out of the country till the 14th, I missed the February challenge.  For me, this is a blessing in disguise.  Since I no longer qualify for the prize, I can just enjoy participating.  I kinda like it that way, especially since I already spend a lot of time in France.

This past Friday, I looked at the 10-day weather forecast.  Rainy and cool, the weatherman said.  And as I thought about it, I realized this would be the perfect week for me to make the January challenge: Duck prosciutto.  Prosciutto is a simple salt cured, air-dryed meat, but you do need temps in the 50-60 range, and it helps if the humidity is high.  I do not have (or want to build) a curing chamber to make charcuterie, and in North Carolina, we don’t get a lot of weeks like that, so the timing is great.  Also, I recently traded a customer some coffee for one of her locally-raised Muscovy ducks, so I even had the starting materials.

So this afternoon, a rainy Sunday, I tackled step 1 – break down the duck and salt a breast.  Here’s the pictorial:

One big ass duck. This one came from one of the customers of our coffee business. It is a beautiful specimen. But this guy needs to be broken down - it's nearly impossible to cook a whole duck well as long as it's in one piece, and I need one of the breasts uncooked for my project.

I'll spare the detail, since I think most people can break down a bird. Breaking down a duck in no different than a chicken. Remove the leg and thigh as a unit from each side. Then the wings. Now cut the breat free from the breast bone, cutting carefully along the bone. Takes about 5 minutes.

Here's the breast, skin on, ready to be salted. Score the skin so salt can penetrate. You'll want to weigh it, since the way you know it's done 7 or 8 days from now is when it's lost 30% of its weight. This breast was 461 grams. I'll weigh it again after salting and start my calculation from that weight, since the salt draws out moisture (that's why this works!). But the raw weight is a good data point to have.

You're going to salt the breast liberally, then put in in a non-reactive dish on a bed of salt, and cover it entirely in salt. That's quite a bit of salt. Use a container about the same size as the breast to minimize salt use. I used a French gray sea salt that contains peppercorns and herbs - coriander, thyme and rosemary - that I had received as a gift. I don't like this salt for cooking, but it's perfect for making salt cured meat, as the spices add a lot of flavor. I used 250 grams of salt (the entire jar).

Salt the entire breast liberally, rubbing it into the skin and meat.

Here's the breast in my Pyrex container, totally encased in salt. It will stay in here, covered, in the fridge, for 24 hours. Then I'll take it out, rinse, dry, wrap in cheesecloth, tie, and hang till done. I'll show that process tomorrow.

Tomorrow, I’ll rinse it, wrap it, tie it and hang it.  I have between now and then to learn how to respectably tie the thing.