Posts Tagged ‘curing’

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.

Over the years, I’ve learned to cure and smoke my own bacon, from heritage breeds like Berkshire. I’ll make my own pork sausage on occasion. But the desire to make a classic Italian dish, genuine spaghetti carbonara, required that I learn how to cure an unusual cut of pork I’ve never used before.

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, everyone said the same thing: “Though the genuine dish 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. That’s what guanciale is made from. So I needed to find a source.
I started with a local restaurant, the Back Eddy in Westport, Massachusetts. Being a buddy of the owner and chef (and bribing them with alcohol), I asked if they’d order me some jowls. They did, and that worked well for a while. But I didn’t want to keep bothering them every time I wanted more howls, so I eventually found my own source on line that supplied me with massive jowls weighing many pounds each. (See 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 the breed of pig known as Berkshire, also called kurobuta. It’s a delicious breed with wonderful fat that’s healthy and full of flavor. And conveniently, they sell pork jowls in 2-pound packs, with 4 1/2-pound jowls in a pack.
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. Then they’re ready to use and any extra guanciale freezes really well.
Once I made my first batch, there was no turning back!

Pork jowls with a good sprinkling of the cure, ready to be wrapped.

 2 lbs. raw pork jowls
1/2 cup basic dry rub (recipe below)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
a handful of fresh thyme sprigs
Combine the dry rub, brown sugar, and peppercorns in a bowl.
On a large work surface, lay down several sheets of plastic wrap, overlapping each other to keep the cure from leaking through to the counter underneath. Sprinkle half of the salt mixture onto the plastic wrap in an area where the jowls will lay. Scatter a half-dozen thyme sprigs on top of the salt mixture. Lay the pieces of pork jowl on top of the salt mix and thyme, then top the jowls with the rest of the salt mix, covering them evenly, and top with more thyme sprigs.
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. If the plastic wrap still isn’t too tight around the jowls, weigh it down with something heavy to press down on the pork. You really want the salt to make contact with the meat. Place the container in the fridge to cure for 3 weeks.
Every couple of days, remove the weight off the jowls and flip the plastic wrap package over, so that the top is now the bottom. Add the weight and 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 will help the curing process.
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.

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.
Now that you’ve got guanciale, make that spaghetti carbonara you’ve always dreamed about! It’s also great chopped and fried and sprinkled on pizza, and sautéed with vegetables or mixed with scrambled eggs.
The Basic Dry Rub
Every good cure starts with a good dry rub. This one’s extremely simple but requires 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. 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.
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.
Note: the reason I give the brand name for the salt is because all 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.

The Saturday before Labor Day is traditionally considered to be International Bacon Day. So that makes it today!

Let’s face it: there are few foods as magical as bacon. Add bacon to just about any dish you’re preparing, and it elevates it to incredible new heights of flavor. The BLT is possibly the greatest food combination ever invented: just a few simple, fresh ingredients, when placed together, transforming into one of the most amazing sandwiches on planet Earth.

BLT wraps: home-cured and smoked bacon, local farmstead romaine, home garden tomatoes.

 

If I’m buying bacon, I go on-line to Burger’s Smokehouse, a family run business in Missouri that has made great bacon for decades. The prices are good, and they include shipping. (www.smokehouse.com) I buy in quantity and freeze what I don’t need right away. My favorite is the thick-sliced country bacon “steaks.”

But I also make my own.

Bacon comes from the pork belly, and they’re easy to find in any good butcher shop. But to get something a notch above, I’ll buy a heritage breed, like Berkshire pork, from Heritage Pork International. (www.heritagepork.com)  I follow the simple curing techniques outlined in “Charcuterie,” a great book written by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.

To cure bacon, all you really need is salt and sugar, and what they in the curing biz call “pink salt,” which is not to be confused with salt that happens to be pink, like Himalayan salt you would find in a gourmet store. Pink salt is bright pink to let you know that this is a special salt that should only be used in small quantities for curing. The reason is it contains nitrites. Nitrites delay the spoilage of the meat, and help keep the flavors of spices and smoke. They also keep the meat nice and pink instead of an unappetizing gray. That’s good. But nitrites can break down into nitrosamines, which have been known to cause cancer in lab animals. But let’s face it: you would need to eat a ton of cured meat to really worry about this.

To make the basic dry cure:

1/2 lb. kosher salt
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 oz. pink salt
optional ingredients: granulated garlic, granulated onion

Mix the ingredients well. An important note: all salts do not all weigh the same, so go by the weight and not a cup measurement.

Once you rub the pork belly with the basic dry cure, place it in a large Ziploc bag, squeeze the air out of it, and seal it tightly. If it’s too big for the bag, you can either cut the belly into two pieces, or wrap it tightly with several layers of plastic wrap. Place it in a container in the fridge for a couple of weeks, flipping it over every few days to let gravity do its work. You’ll see that the salt will draw moisture out of the meat and form a brine. This brine will continue to cure your pork belly, so leave it in there. (The container will capture any liquid that might seep out.)

In two or three weeks, once the pork belly has been cured, wash the brine off the meat, and pat it dry with paper towels. Now it’s time to cook. You can simply cook the pork belly at 200 degrees for about 2 hours, until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. I place the pork belly in a digital smoker, which allows me to set an exact temperature. I smoke it at 250 degrees for 2 hours, using hickory chips.

 

 

 

Bellies in the smoker

Bellies in the smoker.

 

 

Smoked bacon

Smoked bacon!

That’s it. You have achieved bacon!

The reward is so worth the effort. Just remember that you still need to slice the bacon and fry it. Don’t eat it straight out of the smoker. That first slice you cut off your bacon and toss in a pan to lightly fry for a few moments will be the best bite you’ve ever had in your life!
And if you’re making one slab of bacon, why not make it three or four? It freezes well. And…you will eat it. You know you will!

Frying in the pan!

Frying in the pan!

As if I needed more reasons to eat bacon, this Saturday, September 3rd, is International Bacon Day!

Let’s face it: there are few foods as magical as bacon. Add bacon to just about any dish you’re preparing, and it elevates it to incredible new heights of flavor. The BLT is possibly the greatest food combination ever invented: just a few simple, fresh ingredients, when placed together, transforming into one of the most amazing sandwiches on planet Earth.

Bacon comes from the pork belly. One of the places I buy pork bellies is from my friends at Fire Fly Farms in Stonington, CT (http://www.fireflyfarmsllc.com). I also get Berkshire pork bellies from Heritage Pork International (http://www.heritagepork.com). I follow the simple curing techniques outlined in “Charcuterie,” a great book written by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.

To cure bacon, all you really need is Kosher salt and what they in the curing biz call “pink salt,” which is not to be confused with salt that happens to be pink, like Himalayan salt you’d find in a gourmet store. Pink salt is bright pink—to let you know that this is special salt that should only be used in small quantities for curing. The reason for that is because it has nitrites. Nitrites delay the spoilage of the meat, and help keep the flavors of spices and smoke. They also keep the meat nice and pink instead of an unappetizing gray. That’s good. But nitrites can break down into nitrosamines, which have been known to cause cancer in lab animals. But let’s face it: you would need to eat a ton of cured meat to really worry about this.

To make the basic dry cure:

1/2 lb. kosher salt
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 ounce (5 teaspoons) pink salt

Mix the ingredients well. An important note: all Kosher salts do not all weigh the same (Diamond Crystal weighs less than Morton), so go by the weight and not a cup measurement. You can use this rub on your pork belly, but I make a large amount of the dry rub and keep it stored in my pantry. When it’s time to make bacon, I take it out and add other ingredients…

 

 

Bellies in the smoker

Bellies in the smoker.

 

Alz Bacon Rub:

1/2 cup basic dry cure
1/2 cup turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw brand)
1 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon granulated garlic

Once you rub the pork belly thoroughly, place it in a Ziploc bag, squeeze the air out of it, and seal it tightly. another method is to wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, then seal it with tape. Place it in the fridge for a couple of weeks, flipping it over every few days to let gravity do its work. You’ll see that the salt will draw moisture out of the meat and form a brine. This brine will continue to cure your pork belly, so leave it in there.

After a few weeks, once the pork belly has been cured, wash the brine off the meat, pat it dry with paper towels. Now it’s time to cook. You can simply cook the pork belly at 200 degrees for about 2 hours, until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees, but I always place the pork belly in a smoker, cooking it at 250 degrees for 1 hour, then add hickory chips and smoke it at 250 degrees for at least another hour.

Smoked bacon

Smoked bacon

That’s it. You have achieved bacon!

The reward is so worth the effort. You still have to fry it at this point…you can’t just take a bite out of the slab! But that first slice you cut off your bacon and toss in a pan to lightly fry for a few moments will be the best bite you’ve ever had in your life!
And if you’re making one slab of bacon, why not make it three or four? It freezes well. And…you will eat it. You know you will!

Frying in the pan!

Frying in the pan!

Pork is magical. And though I’ve loved bacon and pork chops all my life, it’s only recently that I’ve started to appreciate other cuts of pork and how to prepare them. That includes guanciale (pronounced gwan-chee-ah-lay), meat that comes from the cheek (or jowls) of the pig and is cured but not smoked. The process is similar to making pancetta, only pancetta comes from the belly of the beast.
It all started when I wanted to make an authentic spaghetti carbonara, which uses guanciale, not bacon or pancetta as many recipes state. But finding raw pork jowls wasn’t easy at first. Many websites offered smoked jowls. But raw jowls were almost impossible to find, and I just about gave up until I visited my friends Sal and chef Aaron at the Back Eddy restaurant in Westport, Massachusetts. I told them of my dilemma and they said: “Pork jowls? Oh, we can order them for you!” I was psyched!
About a week later, I picked up my jowls, individually wrapped in hermetically sealed ¼ pound packages, and my curing began. The process is simple: salt, pepper, some fresh thyme. Rub it all over the meat, wrap it tightly, and place it in the fridge to cure for a week or two.
4445B294-694F-4519-AB71-778490B12592
Finding room in my spare fridge to cure the meat was easy…everything fit snugly in a Ziploc bag. But after curing, and once I rinsed the excess salt off the jowl pieces, I had to dry them (all 24 of them since I bought 6 pounds.) So I rigged up a special hanging system that used bungy cords and vinyl cable ties. And three weeks later, I was frying up my guanciale in a saute pan and adding it to vegetables, potatoes, and pizza. I even gave guanciale gifts to my foodie friends.
FullSizeRender (2)
Since that first curing effort, many things had changed. I have several excellent sources for pork jowls, and I buy large 3-pound jowls (big pig!) at one time. And I’ve found 1001 uses for guanciale: pizza, ragu Bolognese, adding flavor to broccoli or brussels sprouts, and more. And, oh yes…I finally made the carbonara recipe with it as well. Here’s my recipe for ragu Bolognese using guanciale: http://wp.me/p1c1Nl-Pc
Always good to have a helper.

Always good to have a helper.

The Saturday before Labor Day is traditionally considered to be International Bacon Day. So that makes it September 5th this year.

Let’s face it: there are few foods as magical as bacon. Add bacon to just about any dish you’re preparing, and it elevates it to incredible new heights of flavor. The BLT is possibly the greatest food combination ever invented: just a few simple, fresh ingredients, when placed together, transforming into one of the most amazing sandwiches on planet Earth.

I buy my bacon on-line from Burger’s Smokehouse, a family-run business in Missouri that not only sells some great bacon (get the thick-sliced country bacon—my favorite), but also smoked turkeys, ham and more.

But I also make my own.

Bacon comes from the pork belly. One of the places I buy pork bellies is from my friends at Fire Fly Farms in Stonington, CT (www.fireflyfarmsllc.com). I follow the simple curing techniques outlined in “Charcuterie,” a great book written by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.

To cure bacon, all you really need is salt and sugar, and what they in the curing biz call “pink salt,” which is not to be confused with salt that happens to be pink, like Himalayan salt you would find in a gourmet store. Pink salt is bright pink—to let you know that this is special salt that should only be used in small quantities for curing. The reason for that is because it has nitrites. Nitrites delay the spoilage of the meat, and help keep the flavors of spices and smoke. They also keep the meat nice and pink instead of an unappetizing gray. That’s good. But nitrites can break down into nitrosamines, which have been known to cause cancer in lab animals. But let’s face it: you would need to eat a ton of cured meat to really worry about this.

To make the basic dry cure:

1/2 lb. kosher salt
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 ounce (5 teaspoons) pink salt
optional ingredients: garlic, onion

Mix the ingredients well. An important note: all Kosher salts do not all weigh the same, so go by the weight and not a cup measurement.

Once you rub the pork belly with the basic dry cure, place it in a Ziploc bag, squeeze the air out of it, and seal it tightly. Place it in the fridge for a couple of weeks, flipping it over every few days to let gravity do its work. You’ll see that the salt will draw moisture out of the meat and form a brine. This brine will continue to cure your pork belly, so leave it in there.
Once the pork belly has been cured, wash the brine off the meat, pat it dry with paper towels. Now it’s time to cook. You can simply cook the pork belly at 200 degrees for about 2 hours, until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees, or place the pork belly in a smoker, cooking it at 250 degrees for 1 hour, then adding hickory chips and smoking it at 250 degrees for another hour. I use my digital smoker to do this.

 

 

 

Bellies in the smoker

Bellies in the smoker.

 

 

Smoked bacon

Smoked bacon

That’s it. You have achieved bacon!

The reward is so worth the effort. That first slice you cut off your bacon and toss in a pan to lightly fry for a few moments will be the best bite you’ve ever had in your life!
And if you’re making one slab of bacon, why not make it three or four? It freezes well. And…you will eat it. You know you will!
Frying in the pan!

Frying in the pan!

I’ve made some changes to my bacon blog of over a year ago, taking many more steps toward true bacon greatness. Scroll down for my updates…

There are few foods as magical as bacon. Add bacon to just about any dish you’re preparing, and it elevates it to incredible new heights of flavor. The BLT is possibly the greatest sandwich ever invented: just a few simple, fresh ingredients, when placed together, transforming into one of the most amazing treats on planet Earth.

And it all depends on the bacon.

For many years, I’ve bought my bacon on-line from Burger’s Smokehouse, a family run business in Missouri that not only sells some great bacon (get the thick-sliced country bacon—my favorite), but also smoked turkeys, ham and more. The prices are excellent and they include shipping.

But it was time to take the next step: I had to make my own bacon!

Bacon comes from the pork belly. So I bought a few slabs of insanely good pork from my friends at Fire Fly Farms in Stonington, CT (www.fireflyfarmsllc.com), and followed the simple curing techniques outlined in a great book about making all kinds of prepared meats (sausages, salamis, and of course, bacon): “Charcuterie,” by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.

To cure bacon, all you really need is some salt and some sugar, and what they in the curing biz call “pink salt,” which is not to be confused with salt that happens to be pink, like Himalayan salt you would find in a spice catalog. Pink salt is bright pink—to let you know that this is special salt that should only be used in small quantities for curing. And the reason for that is because it has nitrites. Nitrites delay the spoilage of the meat, and help keep the flavors of spices and smoke. That’s good. But nitrites can break down into nitrosamines, which have been known to cause cancer in lab animals. But let’s face it: you would need to eat a ton of cured meat to really worry about this.

To make the basic dry cure:

1/2 lb. kosher salt

4 oz sugar

1 ounce (5 teaspoons) pink salt

Combine these ingredients well. You won’t need all of it unless you’ve got a lot of pork belly. An important note: kosher salts do not all weigh the same, so that’s why I go by the weight and not a cup measurement.

Once you rub the pork belly with the basic dry cure, place it in a Ziploc bag, squeeze the air out of it, and seal it well. Place in the fridge for about a week, flipping it over a few times to let gravity do its work. You’ll see that the salt will draw moisture out of the meat and form a brine. This brine will continue to cure your pork belly, so leave it in there.
Once the pork belly has been cured, wash the brine off the meat, pat dry with paper towels. Now it’s time to cook. You can simply cook the pork belly at 200 degrees for about 2 hours, until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees, or do what I did: place the pork belly in a digital smoker, cooking it at 250 degrees for 1 hour, then adding hickory chips and smoking it at 250 degrees for another hour.

That’s it. You have achieved bacon!

Bacon, straight out of the smoker.

Bacon, straight out of the smoker.

Let me tell you…that first slice you cut off that bacon and toss in a pan to lightly fry for a few moments will be the best bite of bacon you have ever had in your life!
The reward is so worth the effort. If you don’t want to bother going online or if you don’t have a local farm to buy your pork, simply go to your favorite butcher and ask for pork belly. It’s usually available. And if you’re making one slab of bacon, why not make it three or four? It freezes well. And…you will eat it. You know you will!

Sliced, and ready for frying.

Sliced, and ready for frying.

Since I posted the above information, I’ve had the opportunity to tweak my bacon curing recipe. The result was a more balanced, less salty bacon with tons of flavor…

Ingredients:

1/4 cup of the basic dry rub (recipe above)

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Combine these ingredients and rub on all sides of the pork belly. Place in Ziploc bags and squeeze all the air out of them. Place in a container in the fridge and turn them over every day to let gravity do its work. A brine will form inside the bag…this is good. It will cure the pork belly. After about a week, remove the pork bellies and rinse them with cold water. Pat them dry with paper towels and then proceed to the smoker.

Bellies in the smoker

Bellies in the smoker

I use a digital smoker, so I set the temp for 250 degrees and cook the pork bellies at this temperature for one hour. I then add hickory chips and smoke the bellies at 25o degrees for one more hour.

Smoked bacon

Smoked bacon

At this point, you have achieved bacon! While the bellies are still warm, you can easily slice off the pork skin off the belly. I discard it. Slice the bacon into whatever thickness you like, and fry some up immediately! Once the rest of the bacon has cooled to room temp, cut them into chunks, wrap individually, and freeze until ready to use.

Frying in the pan!

Frying in the pan!

MAKIN’ BACON!

Posted: December 1, 2012 in bacon, Food, pork, smoking, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

There are few foods as magical as bacon. Add bacon to just about any dish you’re preparing, and it elevates it to incredible new heights of flavor. The BLT is possibly the greatest sandwich ever invented: just a few simple, fresh ingredients, when placed together, transforming into one of the most amazing treats on planet Earth.

And it all depends on the bacon.

For so many years, I’ve bought my bacon on line from Burger’s Smokehouse, a family run business in Missouri that not only sells some of the best bacon I’ve ever had (get the thick-sliced country bacon—my favorite), but also smoked turkeys, pork, beef, chicken and more. The prices are very fair and they include shipping, so you know exactly what it’s going to cost you right from the start. (www.smokehouse.com)

But it was time to take the next step: I had to make my own bacon!

My favorite source of heritage breeds of pork, pasture-raised with tender loving care, is Caw Caw Creek, based out of North Carolina. They raise only a handful of pigs in an area that other pig farms would jam in hundreds. The pigs are allowed to roam freely and forage for their food. And as a result, the pork is some of the most flavorful you will find anywhere. (www.cawcawcreek.com) Tell Emile I sent you.

Bacon comes from the pork belly. So I bought a couple slabs from Caw Caw Creek, and followed the simple curing techniques outlined in a great book about making all kinds of prepared meats (sausages, salamis, and of course, bacon): “Charcuterie,” by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.

If there is a skin on the belly, I choose to remove it before curing, but that’s a personal preference. I don’t eat it, so why have it? And it’s so thick, it blocks the cure.

To cure bacon, all you really need is some salt, some sugar, a little pepper, and what they in the curing biz call “pink salt,” which is not to be confused with salt that happens to be pink, like you would find in a basic spice catalog. Pink salt is bright pink—to let you know that this is special salt that should only be used in small quantities for curing. And the reason for that is because it contains nitrites. Nitrites delay the spoilage of the meat, and help preserve the flavors of spices and smoke. That’s good. But nitrites can break down into nitrosamines, which have been known to cause cancer in lab animals. But let’s face it: you would need to eat a ton of cured meat to really worry about this.

Once you rub the pork belly with the salt and sugar mixture, place it in a Ziploc bag, squeeze the air out of it, and seal it well. Place in the fridge for about a week, flipping it over a few times to let gravity do its work. You’ll see that the salt will draw moisture out of the meat and form a brine. This brine will continue to cure your pork belly, so leave it in there.
Once the pork belly has been cured, wash the brine off the meat, pat dry with paper towels. Now it’s time to cook. You can simply cook the pork belly at 200 degrees for about 2 hours, until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees, or do what I did: place the pork belly in a digital smoker, cooking it at 200 degrees for 1 hour, then adding hickory chips and smoking it at 200 degrees for another hour.

That’s it. You have achieved bacon!

Bacon, straight out of the smoker.

Bacon, straight out of the smoker.

Let me tell you…that first slice you cut off that bacon and toss in a pan to lightly fry for a few moments will be the best bite of bacon you have ever had in your life!
The reward is so worth the effort. If you don’t want to bother going online to buy your pork, simply go to your favorite butcher and ask for pork belly. It’s usually available. And if you’re making one slab of bacon, why not make it three or four? It freezes well. And…you will eat it. You know you will!

 

Sliced, and ready for frying.

Sliced, and ready for frying.

 

Pork is magical. And though I’ve loved bacon and pork chops all my life, it’s only recently that I’ve started to appreciate other cuts of pork and how they’ve been prepared.
No store-bought bacon for me. I have a favorite website where I’ve bought the best quality bacon on line from Missouri for years: http://www.smokehouse.com/.
My Italian pork sausages and larger cuts of pork (like shoulders, bellies, and big fat pork chops) come from Caw Caw Creek, the only certified humane heritage breed pork farm in North Carolina. http://www.cawcawcreek.com/.
My pork ribs and liverwurst come from my friends at Simmons Farm in Middletown, RI, a certified organic farm. http://www.simmonsorganicfarmri.com/
And sometimes, my pork can come from surprising places, like my rafting guide friend Rob, whose family runs Crabapple Whitewater in the Forks, Maine, where I raft on the kennebec and Dead Rivers every year. Rob decided to raise two pigs this past year, and he’s willing to trade pork jowls for a few bottles of my homemade Lithuanian honey liqueur called Krupnikas.
Pork jowls?
Weighing the jowl pieces
It all started when I wanted to make an authentic spaghetti carbonara. Since I worship at the Italian food altar of chef Mario Batali, I went to his website to look up his recipe. It said that although many people use bacon or pancetta (both from the belly of the pig—the bacon is smoked, pancetta is not)…authentic carbonara is made with guanciale (pronounced gwan-chee-ah-lay).
Guanciale is cured (but not smoked) and made from pork jowls…that would be the cheeks of the pig. According to Batali, you take raw jowls, cure them for about a week in sugar, salt, peppercorns and fresh thyme, then hang the meat to dry. The result is a delicious pork product that you slice and fry and use in carbonara or any other recipe that calls for a tasty addition of porky goodness.
The flavor of pork jowls is subtly different than that of pancetta. There is a very special mouth-feel to the fat that makes guanciale so good. And once I made my first batch, there was no turning back!
But finding raw pork jowls was not easy. Many websites offered smoked jowls. But raw jowls were almost impossible to find, and I just about gave up until I visited my friends Sal and chef Aaron at the Back Eddy in Westport, Massachusetts. I told them of my dilemma and they said: “Pork jowls? Oh, we can order them for you!” I was psyched!
About a week later, I picked up my jowls, individually wrapped in hermetically sealed ¼ pound packages, and my curing began, following Batali’s recipe.
Getting the curing ingredients together: picking thyme leaves.
Finding room in my spare fridge to cure the meat was easy…everything fit snugly in a Ziploc bag. But once it was time to dry the jowls (all 24 of them since I bought 6 pounds,) I had to rig up a special hanging system that used bungy cords, vinyl cable ties, and beer cans…don’t ask. But it worked! And three weeks later, I was frying up my guanciale in a sautee pan and adding it to vegetables, potatoes, and pizza. I even gave guanciale gifts to my foodie friends. And before long, it was time to make more.
Since that first curing effort, some things had changed. My source for heritage pork, Caw Caw Creek, now carried pork jowls, too. And I was able to buy a couple of 3-pound jowls at a time. They were big, thick, and what I originally envisioned when I dreamed of the jowl of a pig that weighed 300 pounds or more. I cut the two big jowls into 1/2–pound, 3-inch thick slabs, and cured them using the same recipe.
A big, beautiful jowl in its native habitat.
Jowls with curing spices.
All was fine until one time, I went away on vacation, and a hurricane hit our neighborhood, knocking the power out. Fortunately, my good neighbors came to my rescue and started up my generator, plugged in the fridge, and saved the guanciale! I was back in business.
Curing and hanging completed (I now used a far more sophisticated system of stereo wire instead of bungy cords and beer cans, as seen in the photo,) I’ve been sharing the goodness of this incredible and little-known pork product with anyone who would listen—and taste.
A year ago, I had never heard of guanciale. Now, I can’t imagine not having a slab at the ready in my fridge. I use it just about anywhere I would use bacon, short of a BLT.
And by the way…I’ve yet to make the spaghetti carbonara recipe!