Actually no, the easiest way to remember the difference between Prosciutto and Pancetta is to think about Prosciutto as ham and Pancetta as bacon. Both can be used interchangeably in certain dishes, although there are good reasons to understand the subtle differences between the two, and use each optimally to get just the right flavor and texture effect.
Prosciutto is the Italian word for ham. Like all ham, it’s simply the rear leg of the pig, cured. Though prosciutto crudo is made all over Italy, the best of it comes from north-central Italy, near Parma. There, prosciutto is dry-cured with salt, from 10 months to two years, using specially raised hogs…..which is why Prosciutto di Parma typically costs a bit more.
Like ham, you can eat Prosciutto without cooking it. So it’s great for things like salads, crostini topping, wrapped around figs or melon, or eaten as is. It tastes best at room temperature, but dries out and goes bad quickly. Try to use it within two days of purchase. It can also be cooked, as we’ve done in recipes like Cheese Puffs Stuffed with Prosciutto, and Asparagus with Prosciutto in Puffed Pastry.
Pancetta is bacon-cured pork belly. It looks and cooks more like regular bacon. Pancetta is rolled into a large log rather than sliced into thin strips, like Prosciutto. You can have it sliced to any thickness required for your recipe. Pancetta undergoes a special curing process that renders it safe to eat raw, so it can be treated like ham, but we prefer to use it in recipes where it’s cooked, like pasta sauces, beans and soups. A great use for Pancetta is included in this week’s featured dish, Penne a la Vodka.
Both Prosciutto and Pancetta add wonderful richness, texture and saltiness to your dish. If you’re serving something delicate that doesn’t require cooking, go with Prosciutto. If you’re making a sauce, soup or dish that requires extended cooking time, try Pancetta. Of course, bacon can be used in place of Pancetta, and ham may be an alternative in certain dishes that call for Prosciutto – that’s up to you!
Try these recipes and you’ll see how these wonderful Italian meats add flavor and beauty to your next dinner party!