It wasn’t very long ago when I had no idea what guanciale was. It sounded exotic, and while I know I’d heard the term here and there, I truly had no idea what it was, where to get it, or why I’d care. Being the curious food person I now am though, I learned a bit more about it, and now, with access to fantastic, locally raised pork, sought to make my own. So if you’re in the same boat I was and are wondering what guanciale is, the answer is simple: awesome.
If “awesome” didn’t do it for you, in more descriptive terms, guanciale is lightly seasoned, air-dried, cured pork jowl. Many people try to compare the end product to prosciutto or bacon. While those are both wonderful things, they really are nothing alike and if you have any inkling that they are adequate substitutes, dash that thought. The only comparison worth considering between guanciale and prosciutto is one I heard from a friend: prosciutto is more meat with a bit of fat throughout. Guanciale is the opposite. While it sounds simple, its really unique and really something worth trying.
Guanciale has a wholly unique flavor that is unctious, complex, and incredibly porky (a more potent, concentrated dose than you may be used to). You’ll find it is the star of many an Italian dish, and often slowly cooked to render out the tasty fat without turning the bits of meat that remain into something comparable to a crispy bit of bacon (since that would obliterate the flavor). This is one of those ingredients, as simple as it may seem, that can truly make a dish into something special.
Now if you have any reservations of curing your own meat at home, this was my first ever meat curing project and it was incredibly easy. Honestly, this is something anyone can pull off. The hardest part is finding pork jowls (unlikely to be in your supermarket)–once you’ve got that down, you’re good to go.
This recipe comes from Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing.
- One pork jowl (~2-2.5 lbs)
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 cloves garlic
- 15 black peppercorns
- 1 bunch thyme
First, clean the jowl. Cut off any glands or other things that clearly are not meat or fat (it will be obvious). Give it a good rinse.
Mash the garlic to a paste and smash the peppercorns to crack them a bit. Mix everything else together and rub this all over the jowl. Stick this in a plastic bag, label with the date, and put it in the fridge. Turn the bag over every 1-2 days and redistribute the cure all over. A good bit of liquid will come out of the meat. Do this for one week.
Once the week is up, remove the jowl from the cure, rinse briefly, and pat it dry. At this point, you want to hang the jowl to air dry for a month in a dry place under 60°F. If you don’t have such a place available to you, your fridge is a suitable alternative and the end result will still be excellent. Where ever it winds up, simply punch a hole through the meat, pass some sturdy string through, and hang it. Mark your calendar so you don’t forget when this is done (again: one month!).
Once time is up, you’re done–it is now guanciale! You can store the meat in the fridge or freezer to be used at your leisure. If you don’t expect to use it within 3 weeks, the freezer is probably a better place for it, so cut it into manageable chunks, wrap tightly, and store it there.