How To Make: Guanciale
BY NICK MACMAHON | 8 MAY 2019
Guanciale (Gwan-chee-ahhhh-lay) is an Italian cured meat made from a pork cheek or jowl. Unlike other cured meats like prosciutto or salami, this product is usually cooked before eating, most famously, as one of the main ingredients used in a traditional Pasta Carbonara. It is also used in the spicy tomato pasta sauce, Amatriciana.
Guanciale is very similar to the more well known, pancetta, which is made from pork belly. Pork belly, generally considered to be the fattiest cut of a pig, pales in comparison to the level of fat in a pork cheek. A conservative estimation would calculate the fat percentage of a pork cheek or jowl to be at about 80% fat and the remainder, mostly water, a few flecks of muscle and skin. This really isn’t a piece of meat that you want to be cooking for a Sunday roast.
Well, what do you do with a big, fatty pork cheek then?
Some genius took this cut of pork, usually minced for sausage, and turned it into the ultimate form of bacon. The Italians have a long history of taking cheap or unpopular foods and turning them into something outstanding. The term often used for this is ‘Cucina Povera’ translating roughly to ‘Poor Cooking’. But, personally, I think that phrase seems a bit reductive and I would prefer to call it ‘creative resourcefulness’. Maybe the Italians should have a saying “When life gives you pork jowls, make guanciale”.
Unlike other charcuterie products, guanciale is actually incredibly easy to make at home and doesn't require any special additives or equipment. No curing salts, no Prague powder, no nitrates or nitrites. No special curing fridges. Simply pork, salt, sugar and whatever aromatics you want to add. The hardest part is convincing whomever you share your fridge with to let you cure a pig cheek in it for a few months. Or, you can do as many Italians do and hang it up to air-dry in a cool, dark place. Somewhere the temperature stays around 15°C, doesn’t get too dry or too humid and no animals are likely to get at it.
To make guanciale; its as simple as mixing ingredients, curing (4 days) and then drying (10 days or up to 4 months).
- 1 whole pork cheek
- Salt, fine sea salt, no rock or flake salt
- Sugar, standard white sugar
- Aromatics like dried herbs and spices, citrus peel, garlic and onion powder.
Basic curing mix
- 2% Salt
- 2% Sugar
+ Aromatics (I like to use a traditional mix of thyme, rosemary and oregano, 4 bay leaves, a few cloves of garlic and a few generous grinds of pepper.
Percentages are based on the starting weight of your pork cheek. To work out the percentage, multiply the weight of your cheek by 0.02. So for a 1kg cheek, 1000 x 0.02 = 20, so 20g of salt for a 1kg cheek.
- Large resealable plastic bag
- Wire cooling rack that fits in your fridge
- Muslin cloth
Cover the pork with your curing mix so that every part of the surface is covered. You will need a resealable bag that's big enough to hold the pork. Place the pork cheek in the bag and add any curing mix that didn't adhere. It can then go into the fridge. It will cure in the fridge for four days and needs to be flipped each day to redistribute the brine. The curing process works to remove water from the meat, so a small amount of liquid will come out. Be sure to keep the bag in a container in case of any leakages.
After 4 days of curing, remove the cheek from the bag. Throw out the bag and accumulated juices. Then, either submerge the cheek in a bowl of water or rinse it under cold tap water. You want to get rid of any excess brine and salt on the surface. Pat dry with a kitchen towel. Now you can wrap the cheek in a muslin cloth. If it's going to continue drying in the fridge, place it on a rack with a tray or plate underneath to catch any liquids that may drip.
Now you wait.
After a couple of weeks, it is good to go. But for a proper guanciale with a deeper and more complex flavour, you should leave it for 3 or 4 months. Unlike other cured meats that have more muscle and are sliced thinly and eaten raw, you don’t have to worry too much about over-drying.
You can gauge how your guanciale is doing by weighing it at any point and comparing to the original weight. Ideal moisture loss is about 30% - but anything between 20-35% will make a great product. Depending on how the meat was treated before you bought it, it can have varying water content levels, so this is not a precise way of measuring, but it will give you a rough idea.
It's normal for cured meats to develop a little mould on the exterior while curing. White mould is fine. Green mould is fine during curing but should be cleaned off with vinegar before consumption. Black mould is a huge problem and should be thrown out straight away. Same goes for any slime on the surface or rotten/putrid smells.
Once the curing is finished, the guanciale is ready to be cooked. Diced and fried for carbonara. Sliced into strips for the ultimate bacon butty. Stored in a plastic resealable bag, it should last in your fridge for a few months. It is a large amount of guanciale to use up, a little goes a long way. If you aren't giving it away to friends, feel free to cut it into portions and freeze for long term storage.