I personally taste-tested a variety of pancetta substitutes to find the best one for every cooking occasion. Whether you’re on the hunt for the closest flavor match, in need of a last-minute pantry substitute, or want a swap that fits your diet, I’ve got the answers.
The best substitutes for pancetta are bacon or guanciale. Salt pork and Spam are also solid alternatives if you’re on a budget. And if you want a vegan or vegetarian substitute, try sauteed mushrooms or marinated tofu.
I made different batches of Italian carbonara to put several pancetta substitutes to the test.
Pancetta is a classic Italian ingredient made with cured pork belly. It has a salty, savory flavor that’ll remind you of bacon (more on that below!), but it’s meatier. The great thing about pancetta is it can be enjoyed cooked or raw, making it a favorite for pasta dishes, pizzas, soups, stews, and charcuterie boards.
Here are the substitutes I tested and the verdicts:
|Guanciale||Authentically Italian, deeper flavor||10/10|
|Homemade Vegan Pancetta||Vegetarian/vegan-friendly||8/10|
|Prosciutto||More suitable for raw applications||7/10|
|Smoked Sausage||Has a smoky, spiced essence||6/10|
Bacon is the ultimate substitute for pancetta, ideally thick-cut bacon. It’s available anywhere and costs less than pancetta, making it accessible for everyone.
Its cured nature gives it a salty, meaty flavor and a fatty richness like pancetta. But the biggest drawback with bacon is it has smoky notes that you don’t get with pancetta. I personally thought the smokiness helped cut through the richness of the carbonara sauce, but I can understand why purists don’t like it. And you can always dial down the smokiness by boiling the bacon first.
A little hack for the health-conscious: turkey bacon, Canadian bacon, or even plant-based bacon can also be brought into the culinary mix, each with its own savory twist.
How to Substitute: Replace pancetta in a 1:1 ratio with bacon.
Authentic carbonara is made with guanciale and not pancetta, so it’s a no-brainer to have this other Italian classic on the list.
It’s also a cured pork product like pancetta, but it’s made from pork jowls (cheek) instead of the belly. It also undergoes a longer curing process and is infused with herbs, giving it a deeper flavor than pancetta. And as a bonus, it’s slightly cheaper than both bacon and pancetta! However, you might need to visit a specialty grocery store to buy it.
How to Substitute: Replace pancetta in a 1:1 ratio with guanciale
This ingredient may be old-fashioned but don’t count it out. It’s still a great substitute for pancetta.
You might think it’s bacon at first glance, but like pancetta, it’s only cured, not smoked. That means it maintains its authentic pork essence. One thing to keep in mind though – you’ll need to plan ahead because salt pork needs to be soaked in water for an hour to balance its saltiness.
How to Substitute: Replace pancetta in a 1:1 ratio with salt pork.
If you’re looking for a vegetarian alternative to pancetta, mushrooms are the way to go.
Mushrooms are naturally loaded with umami, and sauteing them with garlic and shallots until they’re caramelized bumps up their flavor even more. They won’t bring the same richness as pancetta, but their meaty texture and earthy nuances are guaranteed to satisfy your taste buds.
I used cremini mushrooms for my carbonara, but you can also try portobello for a deeper flavor. Dried porcini is another fabulous option if you want something fancy. You’ll want to use more mushrooms than you would pancetta too, because they cook down a lot.
How to Substitute: Replace pancetta with 1.5 times the amount of mushrooms.
Spam has earned a bad reputation, but it’s actually a decent pancetta substitute for the budget-conscious.
It’s salty and savory, and it doesn’t have smoky notes like bacon. Spam even looks a bit like pancetta once you have it all diced up and crispy. Now that’s what I call a win-win!
Psst… if you find the original Spam too salty, there’s also a low-sodium version you can try.
How to Substitute: Replace pancetta in a 1:1 ratio with diced Spam.
Homemade Vegan Pancetta
Vegans, we’ve got you covered! Marinated tofu, with a bit of culinary magic, can emulate the meaty, umami flavor that pancetta brings to the table. My go-to recipe is from The Pesky Vegan, which uses a blend of tamari, tomato puree, and various spices.
Now I won’t lie and tell you that it tastes exactly like pancetta, but it’s savory and oh-so-delicious. Even my non-vegan friends were impressed.
Pro-tip: press the tofu before slicing it up and soaking the cubes in the marinade so it’s not too watery.
How to Substitute: Replace pancetta in a 1:1 ratio with homemade vegan pancetta.
If you want to keep the Italian theme going, prosciutto is another deli product you can try instead of pancetta.
It’s less fatty than pancetta and is usually sliced paper-thin, which isn’t ideal for carbonara or any kind of stew. It worked okay in my experiment, but the carbonara sauce wasn’t as creamy as usual because of the lower fat content.
Where prosciutto will really shine though is on a cheeseboard, pizza, or in a salad. YUM!
How to Substitute: Replace pancetta in a 1:1 ratio with prosciutto.
This substitute strays a bit from pancetta, but sausages are a tasty alternative if you don’t mind switching things up and they have enough fat to make sure you get a super creamy carbonara sauce. They’re also great on pizzas.
I used kielbasa for my test, which gave the carbonara smoky, savory, and spiced notes. It definitely wasn’t traditional, but tasted absolutely fabulous! And to maximize a sausage’s flavor, I highly recommend dicing it like you would with pancetta and searing it until crisp.
Chorizo, Andouille, or whatever your favorite sausage is will work too.
How to Substitute: Replace pancetta in a 1:1 ratio with sausage.
Other Substitute Options
The list above features my top pancetta substitutes, but there are a lot more options you can try.
- Smoked Ham: This has a natural saltiness and smoky undertones that mimic the depth and richness pancetta offers, albeit with a slightly different twist.
- Salami: Another cured meat boasting a medley of spices that will elevate your dish. The only catch is that salami gets greasy when you fry it, so it wasn’t the best option for carbonara.
- Anchovies: For those willing to venture beyond pork and plant-based substitutes, anchovies might just hit the mark. These little fish pack an umami punch and deliver on saltiness. They’re delicious on pizzas, but won’t bring the same texture as pancetta.
- Using more of another umami-rich ingredient: As a last resort, you can simply leave the pancetta out and add more parmesan cheese to your carbonara to make it tastier. This won’t be applicable to all dishes, but it’s an easy tip for delicious pasta.
Substitutes to Avoid
There were plenty of suggestions for pancetta substitutes around the web, but not all of them worked out well for me.
- Pork tocino: this Filipino delight is a cured meat product like pancetta, but it’s cured in a mixture of pineapple juice and sugar, which gives it a prominent sweet flavor.
- Olives: I initially saw how these could work with their salty, briny flavor, but I just thought they strayed too far from the flavor of pancetta.
- Smoked paprika: As I spoke about earlier, pancetta is only cured, not smoked, so we don’t really want to introduce smoky notes! That said, you can use it in soups and stews to add more depth of flavor.
Best Pancetta Substitutes + 3 To Avoid
- 2/3 cup bacon
- 2/3 cup guanciale
- 2/3 cup salt pork
- 2/3 cup mushrooms
- 2/3 cup Spam
- 2/3 cup homemade vegan pancetta
- 2/3 cup prosciutto
- 2/3 cup smoked sausage
- Cook your meal according to the recipe.
- Add your chosen pancetta substitutes at the appropriate cooking time.
- Mix until thoroughly combined and continue with the recipe.