Bacon, pancetta, prosciutto: These three pork products look alike, taste somewhat similar, and even get regularly substituted for each other. It's no wonder we get them confused! In actuality, they have very distinctive characteristics that make each ideal for different kinds of preparations. Here's the scoop on each one and their differences.
Two forms of pancetta: one thin-sliced and the other cubed. Pancetta is usually cooked before eating.
Bacon & Pancetta: Cured Pork Belly
Bacon and pancetta have the most in common. They are both typically made from pork belly and both are cured for a certain length of time. Both are also considered "raw" and need to be cooked before eating.
What's the Difference? The Curing Process
The process for making the two is slightly different.
Pancetta is simply cured, and the focus is really on how this happens. This can be done simply with salt, but spices and other aromatics are often added to infuse the pancetta with particular flavors.
Pancetta is sometimes sold sliced paper thin, or cubed. The thin slices can be wrapped around vegetables or meat before cooking. The pancetta cubes are often used like bacon, sautéed with onions or garlic to form the base of a soup, pasta, or risotto.
Bacon is also cured, like pancetta, but it takes things one step further: the meat is smoked after it's been cured. This is usually a cold-smoking process, meaning that the bacon isn't actually heated or cooked during smoking and remains raw. Smoking can be done with a wide range of woods, from apple to maple, which each give their own distinctive, delicious flavors to the meat.
So pancetta is cured and unsmoked, while bacon is cured and smoked, but both need to be cooked before being eaten. They can be used interchangeably in dishes, depending on whether or not you want a smoky flavor.
Prosciutto from Trader Joe's.
Prosciutto: Cured Ham
Prosciutto is very different from either bacon or pancetta, but we think it gets confusing because the words prosciutto and pancetta can sound similar to our non-Italian ears! Prosciutto is made from the hind leg of a pig (ie, the ham), and outside Italy, calling it prosciutto indicates a ham that has been cured.
The quality of prosciutto is entirely in how it's cured. The outside of the ham is usually rubbed with just salt and sometimes a mix of spices. This draws out moisture and concentrates the flavor while the ham slowly air-dries (very much like dry-aged beef). This process can take anywhere from a few months to a several years depending on the desired result.
Once cured, prosciutto is usually thinly sliced and eaten as is. In other words, uncooked — although we wouldn't exactly call the meat raw after it's been cured for so long. Sometimes prosciutto gets lightly cooked as a finishing touch to a pasta sauce or other dish, but this is more to bring out the aroma and merge flavors than it is to cook the prosciutto.
So now we have to ask — between the three, do you have a favorite?
Post updated from article originally published March 2009.
(Image credits: Faith Durand)