Let’s Learn How to Make Guanciale Together!
If there’s one thing you should learn in the world of charcuterie it’s how to make guanciale. Guanciale (pronounced gwan-CHAH-leh) means pillow in Italian. It beats the hell out of bacon or even pancetta for versatility and has an unparalleled flavor profile. It also means wicked bad ass cured pork cheek or jowl. If you’ve never had this amazing concoction of fatty, porky sweet and salty goodness I encourage you all to run to your local salumi purveyor and get some now.
Guanciale is a lovely creation from the aforementioned jowl of our porcine friends. It has a texture and consistency much like bacon but the depth of flavor if much greater. It compares well to pancetta and can either be eaten raw if sliced thinly or cut thick and pan fried to add depth and flavor to many dishes. It also possess a flavor/smell often described as ‘funk’. Without the funk, the guanciale just ain’t the same animal. It’s an essential umami-type sensory element that guanciale must have if it’s of good quality.
The Multifaceted Jewel of Meat – Pigs Face
If you’ve never considered or fathomed eating pig face get over it. For you see, you cannot know the joys of eating cured pork cheek unless you try. I know, I know – eating something’s face does not sound appealing. But most meat-a-tarians will agree that cheeks are delicious whether they be braised, sautéed or cured. It is an indispensable tool in the Italian chef’s arsenal of ingredients. It can be used for a flavoring for stews or soups and as a featured ingredient in many pasta preparations such as Bucatini all’Amatriciana or Spaghetti Carbonara.
Fresh pork jowl can also be used instead of back fat to make sausages or pates and terrines. If you’ve never tried Porchetta di Testa you are missing out. There’s just something about the fork-tender meat that comes from the head of a properly cooked animal. Just watch this video about what this dish and the term Farm-to-Table truly means. This is bad-ass.
Making Porky Magic
Learning how to make guanciale it quite simple. The secret here is, as always, the quality of the meat and the conditions in which you cure. Buy the absolute best quality you can and pay for it. Most pork cheeks in this country weigh between 1.5 – 4 pounds so you won’t break the bank by paying for local, sustainably raised, non-GMO animals for this recipe. Expect to pay anywhere between
$4-8 per pound for fresh pork cheek.
Step 1 – Separating the Jowl from the Head
If working with a whole or half head, the first step in this process is to separate the jowl. This can be tricky if you’ve never done it before so be easy on yourself if you mess it up. I did. I purchased a half head at a local carniceria.
Mexican carnicerias seem to be the best source for getting a whole head though the quality isn’t fantastic. Good way to practice though.
Work around the cheek bones with a sharp boning knife to separate the jowl from the head. The bone lines are fairly easy to follow. You will likely notice a few yellowish-grey lumpy masses which are lymph nodes. Be careful not to cut these as they may foul the meat. Instead, trim around them to remove them completely as they are unappetizing. Also, you can leave the skin on and trim it off after the guanciale has fully cured or trim it off here. The traditional school of thought is to leave the skin on throughout the process to retain fat, flavor and moisture. Once the cheek has been separated from the face we are ready to start the curing process.
Step 2- Curing the Jowl
After you’ve trimmed the jowl from the pig head, the next step of this process is to prep the cure. As with most curing, you’ll want to measure your cure by weight vs. volume. I typically follow the Ruhlman/Polcyn recipes from their book ‘Salumi’. For this go round, I’m curing the jowl that I just trimmed as well as a nice piece of cheek from Carlton Farms out of Oregon (on the left) that I bought from Bill the Butcher here in Seattle. You’ll notice which looks better straight away.
Then, you want to make your initial cure which you’ll rub into your jowl and cover completely. I used the following ratios for these bad boys:
- 3% Trappani salt
- 3% Black Pepper – toasted and cracked under a pan
- 1.5% Fennel Pollen – you can use toasted fennel seed instead if necessary
When you’ve finished this step your jowls should look like this:
Step 3 – The Cure
Once you’ve applied the cure you can place your soon-to-be-guanciale into gallon ziplocks, expel as much air as possible, and note your starting weight and date. At this point, you can put these beautiful babies in the fridge, cover them with another baking pan and weigh them down under ~ 8# of weight. The pressure will help to ensure that the cure makes its way through the jowl.
Refrigerate the jowls for two days then take out and redistribute the cure. Then flip the jowl and replace the weights for 2 more days.
Step 4 – Adding the Aromatics and Final Drying
After 4 days, remove the jowls from the fridge and rinse under cold water. Pat the jowls dry with a paper towel and rub with dry, white wine. Then, sprinkle the jowl with 2% cracked black pepper and .5% fennel pollen.
Note that during the initial cure the salt will draw moisture out of the jowl and you should experience a weight loss of about 5-10%. Poke a small hole in the corner of the jowl and thread a piece of butchers twine through it. Tie to create a loop for hanging. If you’ve done it right, the guanciale should now look like the those shown below. Bonus points if you have a cute kid hold them up!
You should hang your guanciale in a space that is dark with a relative humidity of 60-70% and a temperature range of 55-65 degrees. Ideally, you’ll have a basement for this which is free of pests and dogs that like to jump.
Step 5 – Mangia!
After ~3-5 weeks of dry curing your guanciale should be ready to eat. Look for about 30% weight loss to determine when you are ready to cut and eat your delicious creation.
You can now cut into this savory treat and get cooking. My recommendation for starters is the aforementioned Bucatini all’Amatriciana. The quintessential dish which uses guanciale. You’ll need to purchase bucatini which is a thick spaghetti with a whole through the middle in order to make this dish. Recipe to follow…
Making Salumi is Fun!
Curing meat in your home is fun and fulfilling. It is truly Culinary Alchemy. There’s nothing better than cutting open that pancetta, coppa or salumi that you’ve made after a long wait and sharing it with your soon-to-be amazed friends. Seeing, smelling and tasting the transformation the meat has undergone is nothing short of amazing. All it takes a good set of instructions, quality meat, the right conditions, and a little bit of elbow grease.
If you enjoyed this post stay tuned for more great step-by-step recipes focusing on curing meat at home. Please check my other posts on Salumi and Charcuterie at TheHungryDogBlog.com or on my own personal site as I continue the journey to learn these culinary arts.
Hi, I was just wondering how much did the jowl cost from Bill the Butcher?
I think it was $6.99/#
Absolutely Amazing Post!! Thank You 100 times over! Just what I am looking for! In past we have just roasted the head and would boil down anything we didn’t eat that night for soup, but now I know how to get the jowls out!!! The best part!!! Thanks!!
Thanks Tracy! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Please do check out some of my other charcuterie ‘how to’ guides. I’ll be posting more this year!
YOU DO NOT SODIUM NITRITE SO I ASSUME IT IS NOT NEEDED IN THIS RECIPE — I AM A NOVICE SO I ASK LOTS OF QUESTIONS — ALSO WHEN I TRIED TO WTCH THE VIDEO IT SAID THE VIDIO IS PRIVATE —
Hi Tony –
Thanks for the comment and please keep them coming. For guanciale you don’t need to use pink salt. The salt does all the work here as it’s a thin cut. With your salt at 3% and the weight compression during the cure – the meat will be permeated and there will be little chance of bad bacteria growth.
As far as the video – thank you for the tip. I’ve updated it and it should work now.
Have you tried vacuum sealing the meat during the curing process? When I make gravlax I vacuum the fish and as the liquid releases I open the bag to pour it off and the reseal. The vacuum causes pressure. It works well. I love the idea of curing my own meat .
Yes – equilibrium curing is a great way to go to ensure proper distribution of the cure. Go forth and cure!
When you saw to redistribute the cure, do you mean take the jowl out of the bag, remove the liquid in the bag, recover with more seasoning and then back in the bag? Or is it just shaking the juices in the bag around?
You can just leave the jowl in the bag and rub it all over. Then flip and replace the weight.
Jason’s way works very well. But making guanciale is a forgiving process compared to other charcuteries. You almost can’t go wrong.
I’m currently on my fourth production run of guanciale. I started making 20 lb (about 10 pieces) batches. Now I am doing 40 lbs. I cure for three months because the meat really does get better with age. Jason’s cure cycle will also give you great guanciale. But I’m spoiled – I lived in Rome (Lazio), the home of guanciale, amatriciana and carbonara, and I became a fan of the best.
Water in the bags? I’ve both drained and not drained the water. Also for this part of the process I’ve used vacuum sealed bags, Tupperware and plain plastic ziplock bags for the 7 to 10 day cure. None of these variables make no real discernible difference in the final product to the fledgling guanciale aficianado.
However, what really makes a difference are things like humidity level when you hang the meat for the second part of the cure. Too little humidity and the skin side of the cured guanciale becomes very hard. And yes, longer cure times do continue to improve the richness of the guanciale.
I assume you mean “parts” rather than % for the salt, pepper, fennel amounts? 3 parts salt, 3 parts pepper, 1.5 parts fennel pollen? And 2 parts pepper. 0.5 parts fennel? The % doesn’t add up to 100….
Hi Beth – no, not parts. These are actually percentages of the total weight of the meat. So, if the meat weighs 100g you would use 3g salt, 3g pepper and so on.
Thanks for your excellent post on guanciale. It was well documented and I’m sure very helpful to people like me who went looking online for “how to” one year ago and had to make do with a LOT LESS help than your blog offers.
You are very welcome – thank you for reading and sharing! Buon appetito!
Love this blog. When u say 3 to 5 weeks drying. What determines if it’s three or five weeks? Weight loss?
Hi Donnie – thanks for the note! Yes, 3-5 weeks is a range where you’d expect to lose ~30% of the weight of the meat. However, I’d recommend going longer – 8-10 weeks will give you a nice funk which makes everything better. Enjoy!
I grew up in the southern us where cured pork jowls are common in the meat case. Is that guanciale? If so, does it matter if the meat has been smoked?
Hey Walter – the cut is one and the same. Traditional Italian prep of guanciale doesn’t call for smoke but it can certainly be done to add flavor and to help preserve.