Monday, April 7, 2008

Romancing the Swine II: Guanciale

Curing meats is something I've been wanting to try for a while now, but I haven't been particularly confident in my house as a suitable air-drying environment. I just don't think there's anywhere I could hang say, a ham, for a long period of time where mice or weird microbes or dog funk wouldn't eventually find it. Guanciale, however, takes only three weeks to cure and can do so in the fridge, according to both Ruhlman and Batali (either of whom I think it's safe to say can be taken as a reliable source of information on the topic of cured pork products). The first step in this project was to order up a couple of Carlton Farms hog jowls from the good folks at Viande:

The jowl, which is just what it sounds like: the cheek, is an unusual cut of pork by American standards, but it's also one of the tastiest (this is also true of beef and many types of fish). However, these do come with a lot of junk attached that you probably don't want to eat: skin, glands, etc, so have your butcher clean them for you if possible.

The method for this is pretty simple. For the cure, I basically averaged out Batali's recipe and Ruhlman's recipe, then quadrupled the amounts respective to the amount of pig:

2 hog jowls
1 C kosher salt
1 C sugar
4 cloves of garlic
1 1/2 tsp black peppercorns, milled fine
1 large bunch of thyme, leaves stripped off stems

Pack each of the jowls into its own gallon-size ziptop bag with half of the cure, distributed evenly on both sides:

Put the bags in the fridge and let the cure do its thing for a week, turning the bags and redistributing the cure every day or two. The salt and sugar will draw moisture out of the jowls (as this happens, you may want to drain it off and add a little salt and sugar in equal amounts), making them inhospitable to microbial growth, while the thyme, pepper and garlic, along with the salt and sugar, will infuse the meat and fat with their flavors. After a week has passed, pull the jowls out of their bags, rinse and dry them thoroughly, and make a hole at one end (not too close to the edge, mind you). Then clear a spot in the fridge and rig up some kitchen twine to hang them:

Now just let 'em hang out for three weeks, making sure not to let them touch each other or anything else. When they're done, they'll be firm to the touch and will appear noticeably drier than before (although in this photo they look pretty much exactly the same):

At this point, they may have developed some white mold on the surface. This is fine, just trim it away. If the mold is green or black, or fuzzy, something's gone horribly awry and you should probably cut bait and throw them away. You should also clean your fridge... But assuming it hasn't turned toxic, the guanciale can be cut into lardons, as in the photo at the beginning of this post, sauteed and used in any number of ways (this is a traditional ingredient in Spaghetti alla Carbonara). It can also be cut into 1/8 inch strips and cooked like bacon, or sliced paper thin and eaten without any cooking at all:

Eaten this way, Guanciale is similar to prosciutto, but more flavorful. It's a sublime, if polygamous, marriage of salty, sweet, herbacious and meaty flavors with a meltingly fatty texture. I should reiterate: it has to be sliced really thin (a mandoline or meat slicer would help here), or it can be a bit chewy, but I think this is the best way to experience it.

The guanciale, wrapped tightly, will keep in the fridge for up to three weeks, or for a matter of months in the freezer (double wrap in plastic wrap and put into a freezer bag with as much of the air sucked out as possible). Next time around, I may throw in some additional herbs, a little oregano and rosemary, perhaps even some tarragon. But for the first go, I consider myself lucky just to have avoided giving myself food poisoning, so I'm not going to split hairs.

6 comments: said...

Awesome. I look forward to this deliciousness being used in future posts.

tommy said...

Oh, you know it, Zak. Welcome aboard!

The Guilty Carnivore said...

That's some beautiful stuff.

Does Viande also sell pre-cured guanciale?

tommy said...

I didn't see any in their case when I picked up the jowls, but the dude who cleaned them for me mentioned that they do make it from time to time. He also mentioned that when they do it, they use curing salt. As I cured mine in the fridge, I chose not to use it. While I'm not entirely averse to the idea of using nitrites and/or nitrates (near as I can tell, this is pretty much a necessary component in a room-temperature cure, as in prosciutto, to rule out the possiblity of botulism; and one should remember that a lot of foods, such as spinach, contain them naturally), if I can get around it, I will.

Of course, it's more fun to make it yourself, but you might also hit up Pastaworks or Foster and Dobbs for guanciale at the retail level.

nadsquad said...

Hey Tommy,
In search of a recipe for guanciale confit, I stumbled upon your blog. I just picked up 2 lbs of guanciale (pre-cured w/nitrates, alas) from Niman Ranch, and they look beautiful.I believe they were around $5.00/lb. Niman Ranch's other meat products have proven to be excellent, so I felt OK about buying from them. Also the price was right.
I plan to confit them and create a (semi)traditional pasta alla matriciana for my Sicilian-American mom and some friends.

We'll see how that goes...

tommy said...

Thanks for stopping by, Nadsquad. Good luck with the guanciale confit. You might also have a look at this post, which I put up back in January, about pork belly confit. Hope the matriciana goes over well, and welcome to the blogosphere!