An Easy Guide To Making Guanciale (Cured Pork Jowl) at Home
The following is a guest post (on homemade guanciale) from our friend and Scordo.com super fan Dr. K. (make sure to read all of his wonderful guest posts and recipes) . All photos courtesy of Dr. K.
Charcuterie originated as means of preserving meats for extended periods. Cured meats (e.g., salumi) were at times a means of survival during leaner times when fresher sources of protein were sparse. With the arrival of modern refrigeration, the need for these techniques to prolong shelf life has diminished. Nonetheless, these techniques have been kept alive because of the flavors they impart to the food. Even small quantities of well prepared charcuterie can pack a wallop of flavor as a stand alone dish or as an adjunct to a main course or side.
America’s addiction to meat has been extensively discussed elsewhere, so I won’t try to thoroughly address that subject here. But it is worth mentioning that we all do our country and planet a favor when we try to consume less meat. When we do indulge, it is best to choose meat that is raised ethically and sustainably (if you can find a local source, even better). While I enjoy consuming high quality meat, I generally prefer meals that don’t center on massive portions of it. Vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and dairy are more important dietary foundations. Furthermore, it’s easy to get plate fatigue after even just a few bites of that enormous steak or pork chop.
One great thing about charcuterie is that it’s the perfect way to enjoy meat without consuming vast quantities. While some people can polish off a 12 oz porterhouse without blinking, you’re not going to find too many who would eat the same weight of sopressata in a single sitting. Small amounts of well prepared charcuterie are a fantastic culinary tool, the performance enhancing drug that can stretch your dinner from a double into a home run. It’s just an added bonus that they may help battle our nation’s meat addiction without forcing vegetarianism on the populace.
Guanciale exemplifies this concept. Guanciale is an unsmoked, cured bacon made from the jowl, or cheek (Ital: guancia) of a pig. Never heard of it? Don’t be ashamed. Forget Americans, there are plenty of Italians who haven’t heard of or tried this. In Calabria, ancestral home of the top brass here at Scordo.com, pig jowl might end up as a component of ‘Nduja, Frittole, or sausage. But in Central Italy, it is destined for guanciale. Which is a good thing. The muscles of facial movement impart a different consistency to cheek fat, with a greater density of collagenous strands than are found in other fatty tissues. As a result, cured pork cheek has a much richer and stronger flavor than cured pork belly, i.e., pancetta or bacon. It is, for lack of a better word, porkier. Additionally, the fat to meat ratio for jowl is higher than that of pork belly, so like pancetta or bacon, this is a salumi you’re probably going to want to cook with rather than eat straight. The classic dishes that feature guanciale are pasta alla carbonara and pasta all’amatriciana, but it can do so much more.
In the US, guanciale is not something you’re going to find in your supermarket. You can seek it out if you know a reputable charcuterie shop, or even better, make it yourself. Home curing your own salumi may be a frightening proposition for the uninitiated, but making spectacular guanciale at home couldn’t be easier. You don’t need any fancy equipment other than a kitchen scale and a refrigerator with some available space. The process herein:
Process and Ingredients:
First, get some pork jowl. In my area, there are a number of farmers who raise pasture-fed pigs, grown without antibiotics and hormones. If this isn’t an option, ask your local butcher, but try to ensure that the meat is well sourced. Factory pork, besides all the chemicals and hormones, is neither healthy nor tasty, and is far too lean and probably not worth the effort.
Take your pork jowl, and with a sharp knife, remove the small cream-colored firm white bumps overlying, and in places within, the fat tissue. This is glandular tissue, and generally not considered good eating (or we’d have a salumi called ghiandola salivare or something like that). Next, weigh the jowl, preferably in grams. This is important. You can adjust the spices as you prefer, but the one thing you don’t want to mess around with is the salt, as this is what prevents spoilage. And to get this ratio right, it’s best to measure by weight and not volume.
For every 1 kg of pork jowl, you want 70 gm of salt (7% of meat weight). Use kosher salt or sea salt (stay away from table salt). Measure an equal weight of sugar (7% of meat weight) and combine with the salt. Now for the herbs. Again, you can vary these as you choose. Want to try red pepper, fennel, and garlic? Go for it. It’s your guanciale. I used about 15 black peppercorns per kg of jowl, along with a couple of bay leaves, a few juniper berries, and a bunch of thyme.
Grind the peppercorns, bay leaves, and juniper berries in a spice grinder till they start to look powdery. Remove the thyme leaves from the stalks (which can be composted) and chop them finely. Mix the spices with the salt and sugar.
Rub the salt/sugar/spice mixture all over the meat completely, and place it in a large container with a lid or in a sealed ziploc bag. Put it in the fridge for 7 days (or more if you like), rubbing the meat all over halfway through to redistribute the cure. In just a few days, you will notice the meat getting firmer as the salt draws out the water from the muscle fibers and a briny solution pools in the container or bag. After the 7 day cure, rinse the meat under cold water, rubbing it all over try to remove the cure. It’s okay if some of the herbs stick to the jowl. Dry it off with paper towels.
Poke a hole in one end of the meat, an inch or so away from the edge (the meat will shrink, so you don’t want it too close). Tie some butcher’s twine in there and hang it in your refrigerator (if you have a spare refrigerator in your house, your family will thank you).
If you happen to have a dedicated curing chamber that can maintain a 55F degree temperature with 75% humidity, more power to you. But the extra humidity, typically important to keep salumi casings from drying out, is not necessary for this very fatty whole-muscle cut. Hang it for 3 weeks or more (the longer you hang it, the drier it will get, with more concentrated flavor), up to a couple months. When done drying, you can wrap it tightly and keep it in the fridge for several weeks, or freeze to keep it longer.
To cook, chop into a fine dice (or slice thinly depending on how you wish to use it) and heat slowly on the stovetop (by itself, with a little olive oil, or in a little simmering water) till the fat renders and the meat browns lightly.
Use this as the base for your pasta alla carbonara or pasta all’amatriciana.
I’ve enjoyed this to flavor beans, lentils and wilted greens. This batch was also part of the best sauteed spinach I’ve ever eaten, and works equally well in chard, collard greens, kale, etc. It goes wonderfully with eggs (try sprinkling it over your frittata), as a topping for pizza, or as a garnish over salad or a thick soup. The possibilities are limitless, and a little goes a very long way. Go ahead, do not be afraid. Hang meat.