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.