Cured, Dried Pork Jowl
Guanciale is a traditional central Italian cured pork product from the areas of Umbria and Lazio. Pronounced “gwon-chee-ah-lay”, it is made from the pork jowl. Although you don’t see pork jowl for sale often in the US, this cured pork is similar in some respects to bacon and pancetta. Like those two cured pork products, it is mostly fat, with striations of meat layered between. However, the pork jowl has a more intense and distinctive aroma and flavor and its fat texture is particularly fine and delicate.
Depending on how long guanciale has been aged, it can be used in various ways. Saltier, well-aged versions can be simply sliced thin and served as charcuterie like prosciutto or lardo. Alternatively, it is often cooked up like bacon. However, one of the most traditional uses of it in Italy is in pasta alla carbonara. Most modern recipes for that dish call for bacon or pancetta. However, the traditional ingredient is this one, often cut into thick lardons and fried up, the rendered fat adding to the sauce of the pasta and giving it a distinctive rich and savory flavor.
The basic idea is that raw pork jowl is cured in a mixture of salt and various seasonings (these depend on the specific version but usually include a simple mixture of pepper, garlic and herbs) and then hung to dry for at least a few weeks but often more. Once done, it can keep hanging or in the refrigerator for several weeks to months. Alternatively, it can be sliced or cut into lardons and frozen until needed.
What you need:
This cured meat can vary quite a bit in its preparation. While some like it less intensely seasoned, letting the natural flavor of the jowl meat stand out, others feel that the intense salt and seasoning stands up nicely to the rich pork flavor. Below I’ve listed the ingredients, but I’ve given some ranges. If you want the more intensely seasoned version, use the larger amounts of each. In addition to more seasoning, you can also cure it for double the time to give it more intensity with either recipe. Play around with it and see what you like best.
- Pork Jowl: Obviously this isn’t something you find in your typical neighborhood supermarket. Talk to your favorite butcher or find a local natural pork farmer and give them a call. The demand for pork jowl in the US is not usually high, so although it may be hard to find, once you find a source you may not find much competition for it. As with all cured products, the raw material is supremely important to good guanciale, so try to find a farmer who raises heirloom pork breeds raised naturally. The flavor difference is worth the extra search. Each jowl will be around 5 pounds, give or take, depending on the size of the hog.
- Kosher salt: At the very least, coat the jowl thoroughly in kosher salt. You can do this by pouring an ample amount of salt into a large tray and putting the jowl into it. Then rub the salt all over every surface, flipping the jowl to thoroughly coat it. If you prefer to go the more intensely seasoned route, weight out about 6% of the weight of the jowl in kosher salt and use that.
- 55 - 65 grams black peppercorns, roughly cracked
- 1 -2 handfuls of fresh thyme leaves, pulled off their stems
- 3-5 big garlic cloves, crushed
How to prepare the guanciale:
- In some jowls you’ll find glands, darker and softer areas of the meat that should be cut out prior to curing, if present. Additionally, depending on the cut and the breed, you may find waddles and/or hair on the skin side of the jowl, as seen in the picture below of a Mangalista jowl. These should be trimmed off.
- Put the salt-coated jowl into a large ziploc bag along with the other ingredients and rub it around to distribute.
- Put it in the refrigerator and weight it down if possible with about 8-10 pounds. I used a big cast iron pot that I put a brick in.
- Leave to cure a total of 4 to 8 days, flipping the jowl and re-weighting every 2 days.
- When done curing, take the jowl out of the bag and rinse thoroughly under cold running water. Thoroughly dry the meat with paper towels, rub with ample white wine and roughly crack over additional black pepper (a tbsp or so worth).
- You’ll now need to hang the guanciale to dry by poking a hole through the pointed end and tying a piece of kitchen twine to it. This is best done in an area that is on the cool side but not a regular fridge, about 60 degrees with high humidity, about 60-70% I’ve done this ranging from 55 to 70% and they all worked out ok. I used my wine cellar unit with trays of water added for humidity. Alternatively you can use an underground basement or cellar that keeps cool/moist or a special refrigerator turned to 60-70 degrees and outfitted with a humidifier.
- The jowl should be left to dry for at least 3 weeks (for jowl you intend to cook) and at least 5 or more weeks for jowl you’d like to either cook or eat as is, sliced thin. As it dries/ages, check the guanciale periodically. As it ages it will darken in color and get firmer and smaller. Depending on your humidity and other conditions/environment, you can get growth of mold on the surface. If you see small areas of fuzzy mold (most often white, but worse are green or black), you can wipe them off gently with a clean cloth dipped in a strong brine solution or vinegar or both. This will help kill any mold and prevent its further growth. If the jowl goes too long with too much mold, it can spoil and should be discarded (the Firepit and Grilling Guru will not be held responsible for any illness caused by improperly cured/dried meat). If you’ve dried other meat products, salami, cured hams and the like, generally the rule is to dry until it has lost about 30% of its original weight. However, for guanciale, the jowl is largely fat, which will not reduce in weight as much as meat which contains more water. So the goal is really more the time (3-5+ weeks) and the firm texture throughout of the meat at the end of the drying period.
- When dried adequately, take the jowl down and refrigerate in a ziploc bag. If the jowl still had skin on, this may be very hard at the end of long drying. In that case, it is best to slice off the skin with a sharp carving knife. You can retain the skin to help flavor and enrich stocks and stews.
Thats it! The jowl is now ready to use. As mentioned before, if only dried a few weeks, it is probably best to use in cooked preparations such as pasta alla carbonara or as cooked bacon slices. If it has been aged longer, it can be sliced thin and eaten as is, plain, drizzled with olive oil, on pieces of baguette or even on pizza. Experiment with this rare delicacy and enjoy!
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