When beginning to experiment with home curing meat, it's important to start with meat you can trust in the first place. Clean meat. If you wish to try a batch of guanciale, sourcing the jowls will probably be the most difficult thing for many of you. I'm lucky to have one friend who raises hogs, and an established acquaintance with another hog farmer, both of whom keep their animals on pasture and eschew hormones and unnecessary antibiotics. These people raise hogs the way I would raise them if I had the acreage, and the chain from farm to butcher to customer is short, well known, and transparent. So I'm very comfortable with using their meat, and confident that this is clean food. Your best bet will likely be a small scale local farmer who sells pork by the whole or half animal. Quite often the jowls are not wanted by the customers, so the butcher often salvages this cut for head cheese, scrapple, or sausage. If you order a half or whole animal, by all means request the jowls. Once you've established a working relationship with the farmer, you may be able to acquire the jowls other customers don't want either very cheaply or entirely free.
Despite my caveats at the beginning of this post, which you should consider seriously, I want to reassure you somewhat. When curing pork jowls, you are starting with a solid piece of meat, as opposed to ground or even cubed meat. This means you are inherently starting from a safer position. Meat with no cuts into it presents few opportunities for contamination. When you can thoroughly cover all exposed surfaces with a curing mix, the risk of any pathogen establishing itself is vanishingly small. Furthermore, I'm going to recommend that all beginners work with small enough batches that the initial stages of curing can be done in the refrigerator. Practice exemplary sanitation when working with meats you will be curing. Make sure your hands, knives, cutting board and food containers - anything the meat comes into contact with - are spotlessly clean. When you add to good sanitation the precaution of starting with clean meat in the first place, and the protection of refrigeration, you can be confident that your curing process is going to produce something safe to eat. When I started home curing I even began the air drying process in the refrigerator. I now do it in our root cellar or even the garage when the temperatures are appropriate.
For additional insurance against spoilage, I tend to smoke the meats I cure at home. Wood smoke is a natural means of preservation and it happens to add a wonderful flavor. If you have a smoker, plan to use it for your first few runs through the curing process. By building in these multiple layers of safety, you will enjoy your finished cured meats without misgivings and learn how easy it really is. Leave sausage preparation for later, after you've taken a few batches of solid cuts through the entire process.
So. On to the details of guanciale. You will need: a metric scale capable of handling fractions of grams, and a scale capable of weighing the jowls you will work with. You can weigh in imperial and convert pounds to metric if need be. Also, a cutting board, a sharp fillet or butcher's knife, salt, sugar, spices, a spice grinder, a container large enough to hold the jowls, metal skewers or racks, newspaper, and optionally, a smoker.
|I'm indicating a large salivary gland, but there are many others below my finger as well|
Trimming the jowls
Ideally, you will do the trimming of the jowls yourself, and with a sharp knife of course, so that as little fat is removed as possible. Some butchers remove almost all the fat, assuming that customers want as lean a cut as possible. Fat protects lean tissue from excessive drying during the curing process, so it's worthwhile to do the job yourself if you can. You will need to remove the salivary glands from the jowls. These usually have a characteristic, light brownish coloration to them, in contrast to the reddish muscle tissue. But I have on at least one occasion seen salivary glands almost identical in color to the muscle. Fortunately, they are further distinguished by shape, which tends to be round, sort of like a bubble surrounded by fat. And the fatty tissue around these glands is also grainy or bubbly, for want of a better word. This fat should also be removed, since it can conceal small salivary glands. The fat you want to leave on the jowl has a smooth, solid texture. Also remove any skin that adheres to the jowls, and wash off any stray bristles or other material. The trimmings can be given to other livestock or pets, either cooked or raw as you prefer.
Two detail images of salivary glands and the different colors they can be. (Click to biggify.)
Weigh the jowls and prepare the curing mix - sample calculations in blue
Once your jowls are cleaned, trimmed, and patted dry, weigh them and convert the weight into grams. A conversion calculator can be found here, or simply multiply the weight in pounds (in decimal form, such as 8.475 lbs) by 453.6. This gives you the weight in grams (8.475 x 453.6 = 3844.26). Using the number you derive, make the following calculations:
[Meat in grams] x 0.025 = kosher salt in grams (3844.3 g x 0.025 = 96.1 g of salt)
[Meat in grams] x 0.015 = cane sugar in grams (3844.3 g x 0.015 = 57.7 g of sugar)
-This is a basic curing mix, the active ingredients that will extract moisture and do most of the preservation. The remaining ingredients will contribute extra flavor, and their weights are derived not directly from the weight of the meat, but from the weight of the salt.
[Salt in grams] ÷ 14 = dried juniper berries in grams (96.1 ÷ 14 = 6.9 g juniper)
[Salt in grams] ÷ 7 = fresh thyme in grams (96.1 ÷ 7 = 13.7 g fresh thyme)
[Salt in grams] ÷ 16 = white peppercorns in grams (96.1 ÷ 16 = 6 g white pepper)
[Salt in grams] ÷ 50 = black peppercorns in grams (96.1 ÷ 50 = 1.9 g black pepper)
[Salt in grams] ÷ 200 = dried bay leaves in grams (96.1 ÷ 200 = 0.5 g bay leaf)
Be sure to make the first two calculations based on the weight of the meat, and all subsequent calculations based on the weight of the salt. This is done simply in order to work with fewer digits. If you need to make substitutions for any of these seasonings, keep in mind that dried herbs are much more concentrated in flavor than fresh herbs. So, for instance, if you use dried thyme in place of fresh, reduce the weight by at least 2/3. If substituting fresh juniper or bay leaves for the dried, multiply the weight by 3 to 5. Other flavorings that I have tried in the past and may continue to experiment with include fresh rosemary, allspice, fennel, and star anise.
Combine the salt and sugar in a bowl. Finely chop the fresh thyme and mix it into the salt mixture. Grind the remaining spices until very fine. Mix these into the salt mixture until the curing mix is homogeneous.
Into the bottom of a non-reactive container large enough to hold all the jowls, scatter a heaping tablespoon of the curing mix. Holding each jowl over the container, coat all surfaces of each jowl thoroughly with the curing mixture, working it into any folds in the meat. When laying one jowl on top of another, sprinkle extra curing mix between them. Scatter any leftover mix over the top layer of jowls. Cover the container tightly with a lid or plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator or a root cellar at refrigerator temperature.
|Curing mix, freshly applied|
Let the jowls cure in the refrigerator for ten days, marking the start and end dates on your calendar when you begin. Check the jowls at least every other day. Turn them over and bring the ones on the bottom to the top. The meat and curing mix will naturally form a brine. You may pour this off after the fifth day if it is excessive, but this is not necessary if you keep rotating the meat. Cover the jowls well after each rotation. By the end of this initial curing stage, the meat should have become noticeably stiffer, but remain somewhat flexible.
On the tenth day, pour off all liquid from the jowls and pat them dry. Either hang them from skewers suspended in the refrigerator, or spread them out on racks to air dry in the refrigerator for another seven days. (If the outdoor air temperature at this time is below 50 F/10 C, you can allow the jowls to dry in a dark, sheltered spot with good air flow.) Mark the beginning and end dates of this period on your calendar when you begin. They will release moisture during this stage, so you may want something to catch the drips. After drying for one week in a cool area, brush off any excess dried curing mix that remains on the meat. If necessary, you can rinse the jowls off under running water. Pat them dry as soon as the curing mix is removed.
|Guanciale on skewers in the fridge|
Smoking and additional air drying
You may now smoke the jowls if you wish. I like a medium smoking temperature for about 4 hours, using apple wood chips, but maple, oak, hickory and other woods could be used. According to strict tradition, guanciale is not a smoked meat. But guanciale affumicata is not unknown in Italy, and I strongly prefer the addition of real smoke flavor. I also prefer the advantage of an additional preservative to the salt and sugar.
|Skewers are handy for the smoking process too.|
|Additional air curing after smoking. Good air circulation is important.|
After the initial air drying and optional smoking, the guanciale can be eaten, or it can continue to air dry for an additional 2-4 weeks, depending on air temperature and humidity. Good temperatures for air curing range from 40-55 F (4-13 C). Humidity should be no higher than 75% and no less than 50%. The jowls will continue to lose moisture in this stage, and it will likely be enough to drip slowly from the meat. You may wish to lay down newspaper under the jowls to save cleanup. When the guanciale is fully air cured, it will no longer release enough liquid to drip. It will have lost more flexibility and become noticeably stiff. In theory, you can dry the meat as much as you like. I find that I prefer guanciale that is still a little flexible and moist. Over drying makes the muscle tissue tougher and causes both the lean and fatty tissue to burn more quickly when cooking. Leaving some moisture in the jowls makes them slower to burn. You will likely want to experiment with the length of the final air curing stage to see what you prefer.
At no time during the curing process should any off odors be present. If you have smoked your guanciale, the smoke should be the only prominent scent. Unsmoked guanciale should have very little odor at all. If you detect an odor of spoilage, trust your nose and discard the meat. If this should happen, it will probably be accompanied by visible signs of contamination.
If you wish to experiment with different flavorings or techniques from one batch to another, it is invaluable to keep a notebook with a record of how you prepared each batch, with tasting notes on the final product, and your ideas for modifications in future batches.
Although the finished guanciale may be eaten raw, I tend to cook it and use it sparingly as a flavoring ingredient. I like it sliced as thinly as possible, laid on top of a pizza just as it goes into the oven. I like to cut it into lardons and render the fat to cook my onions in when preparing a pasta sauce or risotto. Of course it's incomparable in spaghetti alla carbonara, which is its best known use. It can serve as a substitute for bacon in most recipes.
Hope you've enjoyed this overview of my approach to guanciale, and that it encourages you to try some home curing yourself.