Ciccioli – The Italian Cousin to Rillette
A couple of years ago I worked as a stagiare at The Fatted Calf in California’s Napa Valley. And while I learned how to make many things ranging from classic, whole muscle salumi such as coppa and guanciale – I also discovered some new tricks for my repertoire. The biggest revelation was learning about ciccioli – the Italian cousin to its French counterpart rillette.
Traditionally, the Italians would take all the leftover bits of the butchering process and turn it into ciccioli. Since we’re living in an age where we can use what we’d like – I prefer working with pork shoulder over the odd bits. In addition, the texture created by adding crispy pork skin is essential. Also, any lard that is left after cooking may be re-used several times to make more ciccioli or in cooking other recipes.
Now many folks familiar with charcuterie and fine dining know what rillettes are and they can range from sublime to vile, fatty substances that should be nowhere near your mouth. That said, the good versions are delectable and irresistible at the same time. This unctuous, fatty, spreadable meaty confection is a culinary blessing from the porcine gods. And the Italians have taken it to another level.
Ciccioli Recipe – 101
Making ciccioli is a bit of an undertaking from a time perspective but that’s because almost everything related to preserving or curing meat is a labor of love. It’s not difficult per se, but it does require one to allocate the better part of an afternoon to do properly.
While rillettes generally use a healthy portion of quatre epices and brandy for its signature flavor – ciccioli uses red chili flake and dry, white wine to accomplish similar goals. In addition, crispy pork skin is added to ciccioli to give it additional body and texture that is missing from the typically smoother rillettes. The result is a slightly more piquant version of rillettes with a more interesting texture. These key differences are what makes ciccioli such a wonderful concoction.
And as you might imagine, there are as many preparations and variations on ciccioli as there are villages in Italy. I’ve given measurements as approximations for this reason so feel free to make changes and use some poetic license in creating a recipe of your own.
- 1.5-1.75 kg of whole, boneless pork shoulder
- .5 kg of pig skin
- 25-35g kosher salt
- 10g ground black pepper
- 10-20g red chile flakes – depending on your desired heat level
- 15-20 cloves of garlic – peeled and crushed
- 10-15c of lard – enough to cover pork in a dutch oven or similar pan
- Note – if you can avoid using lard from a cardboard box such as that made by ‘Armour’ – you should. Consider heading to your local Mexican market or carniceria and getting the good stuff. Or, render your own!
- 1/2c dry white wine
Step 1 – Preparing the Skin
We start with laying out the skin on a wire rack set into a jelly roll or baking pan. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees (200 c). You can score the pig skin in a criss-cross fashion but it is not necessary. It does, however, make it a bit easier to break up once it has become crisp after baking.
Step 2 – Melt the Lard and Roast the Skin
Place the lard into a large Dutch oven or similar type of pan that will be big enough to accommodate the pork shoulder to be added later. Melt it down over medium low heat and bring to a point just below low simmer.
Once the lard has melted, pour a couple of tablespoons on the pig skin and then put the skin in the oven for about 30 minutes.
Turn the oven down to 275 degrees (135 C) and cook for another 60-90 minutes until the skin is crisp and a rich, golden color as shown below
Break up the skin into smaller chunks and reserve to add back into the pork after it has been cooked.
Step 3 – Prepping the Spices and Pork
While the pig skin is roasting and the lard is being brought to a simmer, prep your spice kit with the garlic, chile flake, black pepper and salt per the ingredient list above.
The garlic should be mashed into a paste using a mortar and pestle. Pro tip – add a bit of the salt to the garlic which will make it a bit easier to macerate with the mortar and pestle.
Once your spice kit is prepped you can cube the pork into 1-1.5″ chunks. Then mix the pork with the spices and garlic. The more time you allow for the pork to marinate the better. Some preparations call for marinating overnight but this isn’t totally necessary. It just depends on your own personal taste.
Step 4 – Cooking the Pork
Immerse the pork into the hot lard and ensure that it’s completely covered. The lard should be just below a simmer. If any foam appears on the surface of the lard, skim it off with a slotted spoon.
Once the pork has been cooked, remove it from the heat and let us rest for 20-30 minutes. Then remove the pork to a large bowl using a slotted spoon or a spider. Strain the remaining fat using a fine sieve into a separate bowl and reserve. Any remaining bits of pork goodness left in the sieve can be added back to the pork – it’s all good flavor!
Step 5 – Shredding the Pork
Once the pork has rested, the fun begins. I highly recommend you invest in latex kitchen gloves for this next step. And, if your hands are a bit sensitive to heat, you may want to double-glove as the pork and lard are still fairly hot.
Begin by shredding the pork as shown below:
Once you have shredded the pork, add in about 1 cup of the lard and mix well with the pork. Ensure that the pork is shredded very finely – you don’t want large chunks in the ciccioli. Also, at this point, you’ll want to add in the broken chunks of pig skin to the pork mixture. Also be sure to add just enough to give the ciccioli a nice texture – you don’t want to overload and have too much skin.
Continue to add lard in 1/2 cup increments until you reach a texture similar to the one shown below. And if you think you’ve added enough lard, add another cup…
Step 6 – Potting the Ciccioli
Now that you’ve achieved the desired, silky texture of your ciccioli, it’s time to put it into beautiful pots. I love using Weck jars when I have them. They make for terrific gifts and they just look pretty on your shelves.
When filling jars, be sure to use the back of a spoon or a wooden skewer to remove any air bubbles you can see on the outside of the container. These can lead to spoilage and/or growth of bad bacteria. Be sure to leave at least a 1/2 inch space above the ciccioli to allow for the additional fat layer that will be used for sealing. Once you’ve filled your jars and/or terrines, chill the ciccioli for an hour in the refrigerator.
The ciccioli should then be covered with a 1/4-1/2 inch layer of the remaining lard to form a seal. Be sure to leave an additional 1/4 inch space above the fat layer to ensure that lids fit snugly on the containers. Else, you’ll end up splashing fat all over the outside of the jars when you attempt to seal them.
In addition, ciccioli can be put into a terrine if you desire. It keeps well and it’s quite easy to cut off a slice when you want it for an appetizer. Just be sure to seal off the open edge with wax paper or parchment.
Step 7 – Cure and Eat!
Allow for the ciccioli to cure over the course of a few days prior to serving. If the ciccioli is sealed and stored under proper refrigerated conditions, it should last for several months and will improve with age.
Now you are flush with ciccioli! And you’ll likely be a star amongst your family and friends for introducing them to this wonderful, meaty concoction. Personally, I like to warm up the ciccioli under low heat prior to serving with a fluffy bread such as ciabatta or on flatbread.