After a lovely Saturday marked by a January thaw, and filled with local foods bought at an on-farm market, seed swapping with other gardeners, and the chance to further our acquaintance with Kelly & Meg of Future House Farm, Sunday dawned grey and forbidding. A freezing drizzle soon set in. An indoor sort of day. I decided it was time to check on the guanciale ("gwan-CHA-lay").
This project started back just before Thanksgiving, and I was due to check on its progress earlier this month. For a variety of reasons, I didn't get around to it until yesterday. The five weeks of air-curing left the pork jowls quite stiff. The apple-wood-smoked jowl had a lovely light smoke aroma, and the unsmoked one still barely any scent at all. Authentic guanciale is only cured, not smoked, so the smoked jowl probably shouldn't be called guanciale at all. What can I say? I like smoked foods, and I've got that handy homemade garbage can smoker. I couldn't resist.
I brought both jowls inside and weighed them. Unfortunately I didn't weigh the raw jowls before starting the curing experiment, but the finished pieces weighed in together at 3 lbs, 2.4 oz. Then I sliced off a few thin pieces from the real guanciale. The texture was noticeably different from any sort of bacon I've ever handled. The slice itself was quite stiff, not floppy and flexible like a slice of normal bacon would be, even though it was easy enough to cut the slice with a sharp knife. These slices released plenty of fat as they cooked in a skillet. They took less time to cook than bacon would, probably because they contained a lot less moisture than conventional bacon.
The flavor of these slices was intense! Extremely meaty and quite salty is how I would describe it, though the sweetness of the sugar in the curing mix was also there in the profile. The flavors of the thyme, black pepper, and juniper berry added to the curing mix were not very pronounced. Having sampled the real guanciale, we next tried the smoked jowl. It too was much more intensely flavored than any bacon we'd ever tried, but the smokiness really took it to another level. I think the amount of smoke on this jowl was just about perfect, neither overpowering nor faint. We liked them both. But I think if we're honest, we liked the smoky one better. Guanciale affumicato, perhaps?
Because we found both samples quite salty, I brushed the excess salt and sugar off of both jowls before storing them in the refrigerator, though the salt content is likely already set. These cured meats are probably not going to be eaten straight up, the way we sampled them, but more likely mixed into sauces, pastas and other dishes. In those contexts, the saltiness probably won't be an issue since other ingredients will balance the salt. In the future though, I might let the jowls air cure for a week and then brush off the excess salt to limit the saltiness in the finished guanciale.
I didn't use any nitrites in the curing mix, only salt, a little sugar, and herbs and spices. Nitrites are usually added to preserve a nice rosy pink color in cured meats. We found that the meat in the unsmoked guanciale was quite pink anyway. The smoked one has more of a brownish tinge, but looking at this photo (smoked jowl on the right) I suspect the center of the smoked one is going to look more pink and less brown. In any case, I don't care enough about the color to add a potentially unhealthy chemical to my curing mix.
This experiment was exceptionally easy to carry out. It took me about the same amount of time to go pick up the jowls and come home with them as it did for me to complete the necessary hands-on work of trimming out the jowls, mixing and applying the curing mix, smoking one of them, and then hanging the jowls to air dry. Of course, the timing was critical. The air drying stage of the curing process wouldn't work without the cold temperatures of winter. But I am very pleased with how this initial attempt at home curing went. I didn't even have a book to consult, just used what resources I could find online.
We're going to try to corral a few friends for a dinner of spaghetti alla carbonara, made with our own eggs and garlic, this home-cured guanciale, a local "Asiago" grating cheese, and some boughten organic pasta and black pepper. A mostly local dinner in the depths of winter! If that dinner materializes, I'll let you know how it goes.