The Italian Almanac

Italian ham

Italian News - May 18

What is the difference between pancetta and prosciutto? They both are Italian hams, but are they interchangeable in recipes? There's no harm in substituting pancetta and prosciutto for one another. But prosciutto does come at a dear price, and cooking with the best of it (Prosciutto di Parma) seems a needless extravagance unless specified in a recipe.If you do substitute, take note that prosciutto is considerably saltier than pancetta and adjust accordingly.

The difference between prosciutto and pancetta is the difference between ham and bacon - albeit though ham and bacon of a particularly exalted variety. Prosciutto, it is true, is Italian ham. In fact prosciutto is the Italian word for ham. And like all ham, it is simply the rear leg of the pig, cured. The prosciutto that most Americans associate with the word is more properly referred to as prosciutto crudo, or raw ham. Though prosciutto crudo is made all over Italy, the best of it comes from Emilia-Romagna, in north central Italy, near Parma.

There prosciutto is dry cured with salt anywhere from 10 months to two years, using specially raised hogs. Its production is an elaborate and strictly controlled art, designed to produce ham with a minimum of salt in a bid to preserve the natural sweetness of the pork. The result is one of Italy's great contributions to gastronomy.

Simply put, pancetta is bacon-cured pork belly. But bacon of a different sort. Unlike American bacon, pancetta is unsmoked and though it is 'crudo', pancetta undergoes a special curing process that renders it safe to eat raw so it can be treated like ham. Pancetta is everyday food in Italy. It turns up raw in sandwiches, on plates of antipasti and cooked in just about everything else: pasta sauces, beans, soups. There's no limit to what it can do.