Monday, January 18, 2010

Guanciale Report: Awesome!

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.


jaz@octoberfarm said...

this looks wonderful! good job! glad it turned out for you.

Wendy said...

Wow! That sounds awesome, and I have to say that I'm so with you on the smoked meat. We haven't smoke-cured any meat, yet, but we do enjoy smoking the meat on our grill while we're cooking it.

We've been doing some research on how Native Americans preserved food, and drying and smoking were the two most oft used methods. We're going to try smoke curing our rabbit meat this summer. It should be interesting ;).

You mentioned your garbage can smoker. Did you make it yourself? Do you have any plans?

The Mom said...

Those look amazing. It's funny that just after I read your first post, I happened to watch a cooking show that used guanciale. It was rather neat, knowing what it was. You've inspired me to cure my own with the next pig we get.

Kate said...

Wendy, I meant to make that a link to a previous post. I've updated, so you can look at my post on the garbage can smoker. It's pretty basic, and uses an ancient electric burner my husband had from his college days. I put the wood chips in tuna fish cans on top of that burner and close up the can. It works pretty well for our purposes.

jake said...

Wow, that looks delish! When the economy tanks, the dollar becomes worthless and all hell breaks loose, I think smart people will head to your house!

Thankfully, Im on the road you are, preparing and learning things for myself so I dont need to rely on others. But, I sure wouldnt mind stopping in to sample your guanciale. Looks perfect!

Kind Regards, 1916home

Anonymous said...

Very, very cool! I may have to put this on the list of things to try...a great winter project!

(Say - do you know if meat curing requires root-cellar conditions, or would that be too humid?)


Kate said...

Jaz, thanks.

The Mom, for once I am cutting edge! Maybe guanciale is the new black. I hope you'll blog about your guanciale experiment when you embark upon it.

Dave, thanks. Now that you know how easy-peasy it is, why not give it a try yourself?

Eatclosetohome, you know that is a question I asked myself. I first thought the humidity would be a problem. But I wonder now whether the curing mix might be sufficient to pull moisture out of the meat even in a humid environment. I don't know the answer. But I do know that in this area farmers used to hang their hams from the rafters of their roofs. I've seen attic floorboards stained black from the fatty drippings that came from cured hams. I'm sure they started those hams in winter, but I think they left them there even as the temperature rose in spring and into summer. Don't quote me on that though.

Bureinato said...

I'm glad you posted the final results. I had some serious doubts when you embarked on making guanciole, which I'd never heard of, but thought hog jowls? really? It looks much better than I expected :)

Kate said...

Bureinato, glad to be of service. I'm surprised you'd never heard of guanciale, since your handle sounds vaguely Italian. But if you were Italian, I'm sure you would have heard of it. I encourage you to try it if you ever get the chance.

Diana said...

Hiya! Long-time reader, first time commenter. I enjoyed reading about your garden (in later posts) and would love to see some pictures of your layout; edible forests seem so daunting to me.

I'd like to try guanciale as well; where did you get the jowls?

Kate said...

Diana, hi and thanks for de-lurkifying yourself. I got the jowls from a friend, the farmer who raised the hogs. I'm fortunate to know two local farmers pretty well, and another two to a lesser extent. You can read about that in the earlier posts on guanciale.

As for pictures of the garden, I'll try to get some pictures together when the snow melts and things are looking decent again. A photo "tour" of my edible landscaping is something I've considered posting from time to time, so thanks for the nudge.

scott said...

Very impressive, Kate. It's really not as intimidating as it seems. You need not worry about using the nitrite, as there is more in spincah than the tiny amount used to cure this. Although, like you, I don't use it for guanciale either. Regarding the humidity, the jowls(and pancetta tesa for that matter) are thin enough and don't need to be dried like salame or other whole muscles can be dried out in a regular household refrigerator. Great looking stuff, BTW. Try spaghetti alla gricia, showcase the guanciale a bit more.

Kate said...

Scott, thanks! You're right; it really isn't that complicated. I did try some alla gricia. It was good, but I think I prefer the carbonara. I still haven't made amatriciana yet though. I'm going to be very sad when we use up the last of this stuff.

Bureinato said...


I'm bad about not reading the comments :)

My handle is actually a martial arts training name that is totally made up. It's supposed to mean defiant blade. Its main virtue is that it's never taken as a user name.

While I like Italian food, I'm no expert.

Anonymous said...


I rarely if ever have access to pork jowls or a pigs head, but I regularly make my own Tasso. It's a much faster process, curing in Morton's sugar cure takes 6-8 hours, after which the slabs of pork shoulder are rinsed, dried, crusted with a dry rub of marjoram, cayenne pepper, black pepper and allspice and smoked. The result is intensely salty/smokey/spicey, makes a good condiment for cooking greens, etc.

Kate said...

Anon, I'd never heard of tasso before. Sounds good though. Do you slow cook/barbeque it after the curing is done?

adam said...

this is the stuff - gonna try my own recipe too - i reckon I will smoke it after the cure like you did

GUANCIALE AFFUMICATO,com_k2/Itemid,99/id,29/view,item/

also found this commercial italian link - apologies for raw google translation, these folks cure 15 to 20 days with a 40 to 60 day hang