If you like using bacon, pancetta, salt pork, or any other render-able pork product (that is, any pork product whose white bits melt into an intoxicating liquid fat), let me introduce you to guanciale, pancetta’s overly-easy-to-make (but under-utilized) Italian cousin. Though it is even less lean than pancetta or bacon, guanciale lends a porkier flavor than both.
“Guancia” is Italian for cheek. The jowl of a pig—after it’s seasoned, salted, and cured—becomes firm and dark, the fat silky rich, with the meat transformed into a pinkish vehicle of deep pig flavor.
Though pork belly and its offspring have become more available in some supermarkets, pig jowls have not. (Shocking, right?) So I sourced them from Houde Family Farm, an online purveyor of pork parts. Delivery was fast and well-priced, and the farm’s care and quality were outstanding. Freshness is the most important consideration when making homemade charcuterie, so be sure to be home for the meat delivery—sadly, jowls will not cure by themselves on your porch.
I wanted to develop a method that was doable at home, yet resulted in a farm-made taste and texture. The recipe and technique are quite simple, and it is very easy to achieve a professional quality with your kitchen and fridge. After many tests, I realized that with consistent conditions and redistribution of the salt and sugar mixture, it’s difficult to mess this up.
You will be a master of ancient Italian meat-curing before you know it. Bust the guanciale out any time you want to impress your foodie friends, or just to have some of the deepest, richest pork flavor you’ve ever tasted.
First, remove all glands from the meat side of the cheek. They’re clearly visible (raised above the surface and light brown) and are easy to remove with a sharp knife. Make sure to also remove the piece that attaches the gland to the jowl.
Mix the remaining ingredients thoroughly so that the cure is evenly distributed. Feel free to play around with different spices. Though I like the simpler combination of just salt, sugar, peppercorns and thyme, I also liked juniper berries, bay leaf, and garlic (just make sure to grind them up in a spice grinder beforehand).
Place the cleaned jowl and cure mixture in a zip-lock bag, and lay it on a flat surface in your fridge. Rotate the bag daily until the jowl feels firm, which takes about 5 to 7 days.
Next, remove the jowl from the bag and rinse it well with cold water. (Rinsing the jowl completely will ensure that your guanciale does not become overly salty.)
Pat the entire jowl dry. This step is very important as extra moisture can cause bacteria to develop.
Poke a hole through the meat with a paring knife. Be sure not to make the incision too close to the edge of the meat or the hole will break through during the drying stage as the meat shrinks.
Thread a piece of butcher twine through the hole for hanging. Placing the twine on the opening and pushing it through with a screwdriver worked for me.
I like to use the shelving in my refrigerator to tie up the jowl. Curing needs perfect conditions to do its work and to ensure safe and edible items. The right temperature and humidity are hard to achieve outside of your refrigerator. Let it hang until the meat feels solid, usually about 3 weeks.
Once it’s firm, untie the meat and remove it from the refrigerator.
Slice your guanciale to the desired thickness or as requested in a recipe. It will keep for up to 2 months (or longer) in the refrigerator.