I always try to have a hunk of bacon in my fridge.
Sliced thinly, slapped into a pan, and rendered slowly, it’s breakfast. Chopped into cubes and crisped in a pot, it's a source of fat and flavor when I’m building a soup stock. It makes its way into my salads, too, along with big crumbles of goat cheese. Though this trend has (thankfully) passed, there was even a time when bits of caramelized bacon found their way into my cookie dough and cake batter. Bacon consistently proves to be one of the most versatile ingredients I have on hand
But its versatility has led me astray more than once or twice. I have been guilty in the past of substituting bacon in a recipe that calls for guanciale, pancetta, or any number of other cured pork products; I figured they couldn’t really be that different. Who can be bothered to change out of their pajamas and fuzzy slippers to hunt down a gargantuan block of pancetta? Instead, I’d add bacon to collard greens in place of ham hock, or use it in place of guanciale in traditional Roman pasta dishes, like pasta alla Gricia. Sometimes these substitutions have worked fine, but they’ve often fallen short.
The problem is that while products like bacon, guanciale, and pancetta may look very similar in the butcher’s case, they’re cut and prepared in different ways, and have quite different flavors. Knowing a little bit about what part of the animal each product comes from, and how it’s prepared, can help you decide whether you can or should substitute bacon in its place, or just drag yourself to the store and buy some pork.
To that end, here’s the lowdown on some of the more commonly available cured pork products used in cooking, and a bit of insight from our culinary team on how each product can be cooked, served, and (sometimes) swapped. We recommend buying large slabs of these products, instead of depending on pre-sliced, packaged options, which are often of lower quality and are less versatile. Large pieces of meat will give you the freedom to cut the pork into cubes, long slices, or lardons—matchstick-shaped batons that become crisp when cooked, but remain juicy and chewy throughout. And since all of these products have a relatively large proportion of fat, they freeze well, which means you can always have some of each on hand (and, coincidentally, freezing makes them easier to slice.)
The one exception to our suggestion of buying these products in large slabs is bacon, which is difficult to slice into thin rashers at home. Unless you know you’re going to be cubing your bacon, it makes more sense to buy it pre-sliced.
What Is Curing?
Curing is one of the most ancient techniques for preserving meat, fish, and vegetables. The aim of this process is to draw moisture out of the food and make it inhospitable to microbes. In addition to salting, the process of curing often includes smoking and further dehydrating the meat over days, weeks, or months. Some meat products call for a shorter curing time that leaves the meat still moist, while others are cured for much longer. In addition to preservation, this process concentrates flavor and gives meat a dense, almost velvety texture.
When it comes to pork products, there are curing methods and spice rubs specific to every cuisine that consumes pork. Here, we’re focusing on guanciale, pancetta, bacon, and salt pork, four products that look quite similar, and can sometimes be used interchangeably. These four products all start with the salting of raw meat. The salt—packed tightly around the meat, or rubbed on generously—pulls moisture out and, if done carefully and correctly, leaves the protein essentially non-perishable and safe to eat without cooking. Sometimes, the salt is mixed with nitrites and nitrates, two compounds that ensure that bacteria that produce the toxin responsible for botulism don't proliferate. These compounds also speed up the curing process, give the meat a pinkish-red color, and contribute a bit of "hammy" flavor to the meat as it cures.
"Bacon" means different things to different people, and its meaning is largely determined by where a person is from. In the United Kingdom, bacon refers to "back bacon," a cured and smoked pork product made from pork loin (although sometimes a bit of belly is included in the cut). In the UK, the bacon we're familiar with in the United States—cured, lightly smoked pork belly—is called "streaky bacon" or "side bacon."
Similarly, in the US, "Canadian bacon" refers to ham-like rounds of fully cooked, cured, and smoked meat made from the loin.
Other culinary traditions have their own versions of bacon. For example, there are many forms of bacon made and eaten in Germany, sold both smoked and unsmoked, and there are several types of cured pork belly commonly used in Chinese cuisine.
Bacon in the US—the cured, smoked, streaky kind—is mild enough to be cooked and eaten as-is, and has enough fat that it’s also great for incorporating into dishes. Bacon also has less salt than the other products we’re looking at, which means you’re less likely to accidentally make a dish too salty by adding bacon. That said, a lower salt content means bacon will spoil more quickly than pancetta, guanciale, or salt pork. (If you’re like me though, you don’t have to worry about bacon hanging out in the fridge for more than a day or two after you buy it.)
Cooked slowly in a skillet, nubs of bacon will become crisp and golden as fat renders off, and will add texture and a salty kick to soups, salads, and pasta dishes alike. Braised in stock or sauce, that same bacon will melt into a fatty, meaty, unctuous consistency.
Bacon can be cured in a wet or dry brine, typically made up of salt, sugar in some form (honey, molasses, brown sugar, etc.), and spices, as well as synthesized sodium nitrite or, in the case of so-called "uncured" bacon, naturally occurring nitrates and nitrites derived from celery powder. While products like pancetta are simply cured, bacon is smoked after curing.
Though it’s relatively similar to pancetta in fat content, both bacon and pancetta are considerably less fatty than guanciale, which should be taken into account as you think about substitution. Because of its smokiness, bacon shouldn’t be swapped in willy-nilly in dishes that call for pancetta or guanciale. If you’re set on using bacon but want to bump down its smokiness, blanching it briefly will reduce the intensity of flavor, which is ideal when using smoked bacon for lardons in something like a beef bourguignon or a coq au vin. Senior Culinary Editor Sasha Marx suggests using bacon as a substitution only as a background flavor, when the smokiness won’t become so prominent it overpowers a dish. Think garlic-heavy mirepoix and pasta sauces with plenty of tomato-flavor.
This cured Italian pork belly product has a distinct savory quality unlike either the smokiness of American bacon or the funky punch of guanciale. It’s also saltier and more heavily cured than American bacon.
Pancetta comes in two forms: arrotolata and tesa. The arrotolata pancetta comes rolled tightly into a log, while the tesa comes in a slab similar in appearance to bacon. Just like American bacon, pancetta is cut from the belly of the pig, but pancetta is very rarely smoked. On the rare occasion that pancetta is smoked, it is known as pancetta affumicata. Despite the similarities, pancetta affumicata is still more heavily cured than American bacon and is thus saltier, and it has a different flavor. Along with the salt used to cure pancetta, the meat is generally seasoned with a mixture of garlic, black pepper, juniper berries, and thyme.
Because it isn’t usually smoked, pancetta makes for a better guanciale replacement than bacon, which can add an undesired smoky flavor to your dish. That said, Sasha cautions against trying to replace guanciale in recipes like his pasta alla Gricia, where the rich, nutty fat of guanciale is the star of the show. Other dishes, like Daniel’s recipe for pasta carbonara are more flexible, and you can use any three of the aforementioned pork products.
We generally advise against buying pre-sliced or portioned pancetta, which, while readily available at most grocery stores, is often low quality, and has lost the majority of its flavor. Unfortunately, vacuum-sealed packages of pre-sliced pancetta are what you’re most likely to find at supermarkets. While usable, those products are not ideal. Try to find good quality rolled or flat pancetta from Italian specialty markets and other purveyors that are likely to source high quality cured meats.
Salt pork is most often cut from the lower portion of the pork belly, which is almost entirely fat, with only a thin layer of lean protein. Occasionally, you’ll also find salt pork made from back fat, the thick layer of fat cut from the back of the pig. Though it’s not as commonly used as it used to be, salt pork still finds its way into some iconic recipes, such as collard greens and French cassoulet, and it’s useful to know how this cured-pork product differs from bacon. When meat was considered something of a luxury item, and food was scarce, salt pork was made using the scraps and end pieces from butchered pork bellies and shoulder cuts. As the name suggests, the meat is more heavily salted—either dry or in a wet brine—than bacon, and could travel in ships or get hauled across the country for weeks or months without spoiling.
Now, salt pork is made almost exclusively using the lower cut of the pork belly, which is the fattiest section. Because of that, salt pork is much fattier than most bacon or pancetta. Though you won’t find slices of salt pork laid out next to eggs and toast, it is an important source of flavor in many recipes for New England classics, including clam chowder and baked beans. Because of how salty and fatty this cut is, it may act as a good substitute in a mirepoix or soup stock, but shouldn’t be substituted 1:1 for other pork products in sauces or pastas where its saltiness will overwhelm the final dish.
The word guanciale comes from the Italian guancia, which means cheek. As the name suggests, unlike bacon, pancetta, or salt pork, guanciale comes from the jowl of the pig. At a high quality butcher, you’ll find whole slabs of guanciale, from which you can ask the butcher to slice smaller portions. Sasha often buys the entire guanciale, slicing off and cooking what he’ll use that night, and individually portioning and packaging the rest to be frozen for a later date. Kept this way, the guanciale can be stored indefinitely.
It is hard to find a good substite for guanciale, because its flavor is so unique and pronounced. Guanciale is often flavored with a combination of black pepper and herbs like rosemary, sage, and bay leaves, but it’s the meat itself that tastes distinctly different from any of the other products mentioned in this piece. Guanciale is extremely fatty, and both the fat and meat add a tremendous amount of rich, nutty, slightly funky flavor to any dish. When I asked Sasha how one can dispose of all the extra fat, his jaw practically dropped. The fat, Sasha says, is “the whole point of guanciale.” This cut and its fat gives dishes a buttery depth that just can’t be copied. Daniel calls on rich guanciale in his recipe for the classic Roman dish bucatini all'Amatriciana, where the funky flavor of guanciale melds and mixes with that of cooked tomatoes. In a pinch you can substitute pancetta for guanciale, but it just won’t be the same.
Editor's note: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this piece stated that Canadians refer to back bacon when they use the word "bacon." We regret the error.