There it is folks. Look at it. Pork jowl that has been salted, then air dried for 2 months…
There are many things that I love about pigs, and it isn’t just that they are pretty darn cute to look at.
They are tasty. Seriously tasty. We all know that. But for me, properly raised pork is much more than that. In my book, more than any other animal that we eat, you can really taste the difference between the various cuts.
You take a pork loin cut – clean, crisp, mild pig flavor. Not much marbling, pretty lean – and lean tasting. You move toward the shoulder and you start talking about muscles that are used more often. They are tougher. They have more fat marbling. They need slower cooking, but yield a much richer flavor.
Now we start talking about the pig’s head and neck. Tough meat that needs slow cooking, but a cut that yields extreme richness, and a really deep porky flavor. It certainly isn’t one for the pork novice, but if you like food with character, this is a good place to start (rather cheap too, as it happens).
This is really highlighted when you start to cook and eat pork from farms that do a fantastic job of raising their pigs in good conditions. Supermarket pork pretty much sucks – far too lean, and devoid of flavor. (not to mention hormones, antibiotics and all that jazz). When you start thinking seriously about pork you can taste the subtle variations in the different breeds – especially heritage breeds. When you start getting pretty hardcore about it all, you can also notice taste differences depending on what the pig was fed on.
These differences really get highlighted further when you start to look at meat curing and charcuterie. Flavors get enhanced, condensed. Somewhat like the flavor differences between fast and slow cooking something.
Enter Guanciale [ɡwanˈtʃaːle]
Guanciale is a whole pork jowl, that has been rubbed with salt herbs and spices, and air dried. The jowl is the cheek and some neck of a pig. It is quite frankly one of the fattiest cuts of meat I have ever seen. Whilst pork belly (bacon) might have a 50/50 fat to meat percentage, jowl is around 70/30 fat to meat. This really varies on the breed of pig too. Mangalista pigs might even be pushing a 80/20 ratio.
Because of how much these muscles are used there is also a lot of collagen in this cut. What does this mean for the cook and charcuteriest? It means richness, in a word.
When you slowly render out the fat from guanciale, much like you do bacon, you get a rich fattiness which really adds a lot of body and character to sauces.
Guanciale is a cured meat that in my opinion is best used IN something. You can certainly thinly slice and eat this charcuterie raw if you wish. It is rich though, really darn rich. I tried three thin slices raw when I pulled this from my curing chamber, and frankly felt pretty sick after – just from how gosh darn fatty and rich this is.
This is a cut that you certainly want to cook with – think of it like bacon on steroids. But, without any steroids. Bacon with more porky flavor. Bacon that can give more richness and more body to sauce or a dish.
“Wait.. More richness and flavor than bacon? Matt are you mad?” I hear you say.
Nope, not mad. Try it. Source some out, and give it a go.
You could of course make your own. Guanciale is one of the easiest pieces of cured meat to do at home – next to perhaps duck prosciutto. The jowl is relatively small, and pretty thin – meaning that it cures reasonably quickly, which gives less chance of any muck-ups.
I cured this jowl with Becky Selengut, a fantastic chef and food writer here in Seattle, who happens to share my love of charcuterie. We had a day around the end of last year where we made salami, guanciale and coppa.
(there is Becky, demonstrating the location of a jowl..)
For the curing recipe, we modified the recipe in Michael Ruhlman’s excellent Charcuterie book
we essentially took his recipe, and added extra flavorings that we personally like. It is important when modifying charcuterie recipes not to muck around with salt or sodium nitrate/nitrite amounts. It is also important to treat these values more as ratios of the meat weight (or percentages of meat weight). This way if you meat is a different weight to the recipe (which it most likely will be), then you can accurately work out how much of the other stuff you are going need.
I also urge you to work in metric units, and to use as scale, and not do things by volume. Accuracy is important, especially when dealing with some of the cure ingredients. (having said that, this recipe is more forgiving for that since no nitrate/nitrite’s are used)
Home Cured Guanciale Recipe
2lb/ 1kg pork jowl
70grams kosher salt (7% of meat weight)
70 grams sugar (7% of meat weight)
15 black peppercorns
1 large bunch of thyme
2 bay laurel leaves (look for genuine bay laurel, not the pungent Californian bay)
4 juniper berries
Grind up the juniper, peppercorns and bay in a spice grinder until reasonably fine. Combine with the salt and sugar. Remove the leaves from the thyme, discard the stalks, and finely chop. Add to the salt mixture, and stir to combine.
Using a sharp boning knife or pairing knife remove any glads from the meat. These will look like small off-white bumps that are reasonably hard. Some might be hiding under some fat.
In a large tupperware, or zip lock bag combine the cure ingredients and the jowl. Rub the cure into the meat on all sides thoroughly. Seal the bag, or the tupperware and pop in the fridge for 7 days. On day 3 redistribute the cure over the meat just by rubbing the meat again.
After 7 days the meat should feel firmer. Take it out of the fridge, and rinse it in cold water to remove the cure. Some of the herbs might well stick to the meat and fat, that is fine – just give a good rub over to get the cure off. Dry with a towel.
Make a hole in one end, not too close to the edge of the meat (since it will shrink). Tie some butchers string through the hole, and hang at 55F 75% humidity for at least a month, possibly two.
You will know when the jowl is cured because it should feel firm to the touch. The fat will feel softer than the meat, that is fine.
Once cured it should keep in the fridge easily for a few weeks, or frozen longer. You can keep it hanging at 55F and 75% humidity too if you wish – the meat might well harden more, but it will develop an even stronger flavor.
What to do with all this guanciale?
Well, glad you asked. A little can go a long way for sure.
I doubt anyone is as lucky as Danika and I are for this. Becky just happened to have done a stint at one of Seattle’s best (and authentic) Italian restaurants, La Spiga, making pasta for a year. So, when she says “hey, why don’t you guys come over and I will make a carbonara with some of the jowl” you do not say no.
Dang, that was some seriously good pasta. Guanciale is the traditional cured meat used in carbonora, but most people (including me, until we cured some) would normally use pancetta or bacon).
How about this?:
That was a recipe I knocked together almost a year ago, with some guanciale I bought at the store.
* Truth be told, guanciale goes GREAT with beans. Better than bacon I would say.
* How about the classic Bucatini all’amatriciana – this recipe from Babbo restaurant is fantastic.
* Anything with eggs. Dice it over a fried egg if you wish. Just fantastic.