GUANCIALE: A LOVE STORY

Posted: June 18, 2020 in carbonara, curing, guanciale, Italian, pork jowl, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,
Pork is magical. And though I’ve loved pork chops and store-bought bacon all my life, it’s only been in the last decade that I’ve learned to appreciate other cuts of pork and how they’re prepared. Guanciale is one of those meats, and it’s a key ingredient to a classic Italian dish: pasta carbonara.

 

In the beginning, I could only find huge jowls that required them to be cut and weighed to mix with the right amount of cure.

Looking at carbonara recipes online, many said the same thing: “Though a genuine carbonara uses a cured cut of pork called guanciale, it’s hard to find. So use pancetta or bacon.” Although both pancetta and bacon meats are quite tasty (both come from the belly of the pig…bacon is smoked, pancetta is not) the flavor and texture is not the same as a pork cheek, or jowl…and that’s what guanciale is made from.
My search for guanciale started with a local restaurant, the Back Eddy in Westport, Massachusetts. Being a buddy of the owner (and bribing him with alcohol), I asked if he’d order me some jowls. He did, and that worked well for a while. But I didn’t want to keep bothering him every time I wanted more, so I eventually found my own source on line that supplied me with massive jowls weighing many pounds each, as in the photo above. They were good, but a pain to work with. Eventually, that company went out of business.
I finally found my go-to pork website: http://www.heritagepork.com. They sell a variety of pork products made from a heritage breed of pig known as Berkshire, also called kurobuta. It’s delicious with wonderful fat that’s healthy and full of flavor. And conveniently, they sell pork jowls in smaller, 2-pound packs.

Berkshire pork jowls with fresh thyme from the garden and the dry cure mix.

 

My curing process is simple: sugar, salt, peppercorns, and fresh thyme. I cure the jowls for about 3 weeks. I rinse them once they’ve cured, and pat them dry. They still need to cook, but they’re ready to use for carbonara, ragu bolognese, topping a pizza, or any other delicious recipe that comes my way…and they freeze really well.
Once I made my first batch, there was no turning back!
2 lbs. raw pork jowls
1/2 cup basic dry cure (recipe below)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
a handful of fresh thyme sprigs
Combine the basic dry cure, brown sugar, and peppercorns in a bowl. We’ll call this the cure mix.
On a large work surface, lay down several sheets of plastic wrap, overlapping each other to keep the cure mix from leaking through to the counter underneath. Sprinkle half of the cure mix onto the plastic wrap in an area where the jowls will lay. Scatter a half-dozen thyme sprigs on top of the cure mix. Lay the pieces of pork jowl on top of the cure mix and thyme.

I place the cure mix and sprigs of thyme on a long sheet of plastic wrap.

 

The pork jowls go on top.

Then top the jowls with the rest of the cure mix, covering them evenly, and top with more thyme sprigs.

Press down on the jowls to really get the cure mix to stick.

Fold the plastic wrap over the jowls as tightly as you can, pressing the salt mix into the meat. If the wrap is loose, use more wrap to really tighten the salt cure around the meat. Then place the entire pork-wrapped package in a container that will hold the liquid that will ooze out during the curing process.

Into a container with a lid and into the fridge.

 

Place the container in the fridge to cure for 3 weeks.
Every couple of days, flip the plastic wrap package over, so that the top is now the bottom. Then return it to the fridge. You want the cure to get at every part of the pork. Don’t pour off any liquid that forms…it gets kind of gooey, but it will help the curing process.

3 weeks later…

In about 3 weeks, the pork jowls will feel firmer. This is a sign they’ve been properly cured. Remove them from the plastic wrap, rinse them thoroughly under cold clean water, then pat them dry with paper towels.

They’re perfect…they just need a rinse.

 

Cured, rinsed and dried guanciale. Cut the jowls into smaller pieces before freezing. A little goes a long way!

 

At this point, you can cut the jowls (now officially guanciale!) into smaller pieces, wrapping each well and placing them in freezer bags. They will keep in the freezer for a long time.
Many guanciale recipes tell you to hang the meat in the fridge for at least a week after curing, but I haven’t really found the need to do that if I’m keeping them frozen. The drying process keeps the meat from getting moldy, but that’s only if you keep it in warmer temperatures.

Always slice off a little to fry up a test batch! It’s all about quality control!

 

The Basic Dry Cure
This cure’s extremely simple, and you can cure many meats with it. But it does require a special ingredient: pink salt. This is not pink Himalayan salt. This is a very special curing salt that must be used in small amounts. (You can easily find it online.) It contains nitrites which will help preserve the meat and give it a good color. Many people get bent out of shape over nitrites these days, so you need to decide whether you want to use pink salt or not. I do, because I don’t eat pounds of guanciale like a lab rat. If you don’t use it, the meat will turn a bit gray–nothing wrong with it, just not an appealing color.
1 1/2 cups Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt
1/2 cup organic turbinado  sugar
5 teaspoons pink curing salt
Combine these ingredients and mix well. Store it in a tightly sealed plastic bag in your pantry.
An important note: the reason I give the brand name for the salt is because all Kosher salt does not weigh the same! A cup-and-a-half of Morton Kosher Salt, for example, will weigh more and will throw off the recipe.

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