In searching for sources of it, I ran across some food blogs and recipe websites that actually told how to make the stuff. It looked pretty easy, so I thought, Why not? (Interesting sidebar: one of Toronto’s nicknames is Hogtown. Coincidence? I think not.)
Truth be told, we’re really big on canning and preserving in the Blechta Test Kitchens here in Beautiful Downtown Toronto. Every summer we preserve about 40 liters of tomato sauce, 25 liters of chopped tomatoes, a bushel of roasted red peppers, as well as peach & mango chutney, peaches, currant jelly, and dill pickles. There is something really wonderful about going down to the basement and picking out a jar of sauce that you made, especially in the depths of winter.
So it’s not all that much of a stretch to move into curing meats. We occasionally make duck confit and gravlax, but that didn’t strike me as quite as serious as fooling around with meat. I mean, you can get seriously ill from tainted meat – or so the press would have you believe. It seems like a week can’t go buy without hearing some horror story about illness called by poorly-handled meat.
Reading up on the topic, though, it seemed we could do it safely. Certainly we wouldn’t get botulism from our guanciale because we would be cooking it at the end of the process. Salmonella, e-coli and listeriosis wouldn’t be a problem if our meat came from a reputable source and we handled it carefully. Curing is all about preserving meat so the bad things can’t gain a foothold, isn’t it?
Our decision made, we had to find someone to sell us two pork jowls of reputable origin, because guanciale is made from pig’s cheeks. We also hoped to source our meat from a farm that treated their animals humanely and didn’t feed them all sorts of bad things. Enter Ben Gundy, one of the owners of Olliffe Meat here in Toronto. They recently took over The Sausage King at the St. Lawrence Market which is how I got to know him since we shop there nearly every week. He’s a great butcher and chef, and seriously nice guy. When I inquired about hog jowls, his response was, “How many do you want?”
The next weekend, my son Karel and I picked up two beauties that came from Olliffe’s exclusive Hampshire whey-fed pigs that are antibiotic- and hormone-free, but more importantly, pastured, which means they’d lived as pigs should, not locked in a factory farm barn. And they were surprisingly inexpensive. We were in business!
The next day, we began the curing process which involved salt, sugar as well as herbs and spices. The cure was thoroughly rubbed into the meat, which we then put into large freezer bags. Every day, we’d take them out of the fridge, rub the cure into the meat a bit more, turn them over and back into the fridge they’d go. A week later the curing process was complete. Both jowls had thrown off a considerable amount of water, a very good sign. More importantly, they already smelled lovely, redolent of the herbs and spices with a nice piggy flavor leading the way.
I punched a hole through the top of each jowl and stuck a length of butcher’s twine through. Just before hanging them from a pipe in our basement, I dusted the meat side of each jowl with ground black pepper. Two things you have to monitor during the drying process are the temperature (55º or thereabouts) and humidity (around 75%). As it turned out, with the heating vents down there closed tight, we had ideal conditions. Then we began the waiting game as our guanciale dried.
Eight weeks later, we were rewarded with two beautiful-smelling pieces of guanciale. Fried up, it smelled (and looked) even better, and since my wife Vicki adores spaghetti all’amatriciana, I made that as our first taste of home-cured meat. Delizioso!
Next weekend, Ben provided us with two more (huge!) pork jowls, and they’re now drying in the basement, along with the second of the original two, which we’re aging a bit longer to see how the flavour intensifies. We won’t have a cold enough basement for much longer, so we have to take advantage of conditions now. For the second batch we also changed up the recipe with a bit more thyme and juniper and adding an ounce of white wine to each freezer bag after the first day of curing. We will report on the results as they come in.
The recipe below is (more or less) from Matt Wright’s excellent website and food blog (listed to the right under favorite websites). I like it because it gives proportions based on weight for the two critical ingredients for this recipe: salt and sugar. This way, you can put in exactly the correct amount of salt (critically important) for the amount of meat you’re preparing. You certainly don’t want to put in too little, and if you put in too much, you’ll make your guanciale saltier than it needed to be. (I’ve also amped up the herbs and spices slightly.) His recipe will give you lovely results, as is, and can be found here: Wrightfoods/guanciale. Thanks, Matt, for getting me started!
Special note (Read this!): You’ll notice the recipe given here uses only kosher salt (don’t use table salt!), and does not include curing salts (or as it’s more commonly known “pink salt” or “Prague powder”). Use these if you must because they’re formulated for more food safety. Since you’re (presumably) going to be making guanciale in small amounts, caring for it personally, and also (presumably) cooking it before eating, most experts I’ve read felt that kosher salt would be more than safe enough. “Curing salt” contains nitrates or nitrites added to salt to control botulism bacteria (a must for sausage or any cured meat that’s been chopped). Nitrates and nitrites also come with their own health concerns, so in the end, pure kosher salt it was for our guanciale. You must make your own decision on this.
Also (and for any air-dried cured meat recipe you try), watch for mold as it’s hanging. White mold, which you often see on the outside of dried sausage such as salami, is just fine. In fact, white mold adds to the flavor and helps your meat cure. Green mold indicates that something is more than likely wrong, and black mold is downright dangerous. If either of these forms and you catch it quickly, just wipe down your guanciale with a cloth soaked in vinegar. If it's extensive, do yourself a favor and just chuck the meat. Too high a temperature in your drying space will encourage the growth of mold. Sunlight doesn’t help, either.
It’s important to know the risks, however slight, and then pay attention and act accordingly. I make it a point to check on my drying meat almost daily. It’s fun, like watching plants coming up in the spring or fruit ripening in the summer!
Makes around 1 1/2 pounds after drying a 2-pound jowl for 4 weeks
1 pork jowl, around 2 pounds
2 1/2 oz kosher salt (or 7% of meat weight)
2 1/2 oz sugar (or 7% of meat weight)
15 black peppercorns
1 large bunch of thyme
2 bay laurel leaves (look for genuine bay laurel)
8-16 juniper berries (depending on how well you like this flavor)
2-4 oz white wine (we use Orvieto or Pinot Grigio)
1. Grind up the juniper, peppercorns and bay in a spice grinder until reasonably fine, or grind it the old fashioned way using a mortar and pestle. Combine with the salt and sugar. Remove the leaves from the thyme, discarding the stalks. Add to the salt mixture, and stir to combine.
2. Using a sharp boning knife or paring knife, remove any glands from the underside of the meat. These will look like small off-white bumps that are reasonably hard. Some might be hiding under the surface of the fat, so poke around thoroughly.
3. In a large zip lock bag, combine the cure ingredients and the jowl. Thoroughly rub the cure into the meat on all sides. Seal the bag completely and pop it in the fridge for up to seven days. Every other day, redistribute the cure over the meat just by rubbing the meat again, and when it goes back into the fridge, make sure it’s on the opposite side from what it was when you took it out. It will throw off some water, so make sure those bags remain tightly sealed!
4. After 4-5 days the meat should feel firmer. It could well be done. Just remember: the longer you keep it in the cure, the more salty the meat will become. You certainly want the meat to be thoroughly cured, but you don’t want it to be overly salty, either. The thicker the jowl, the longer it will take to cure. Your first time out, it’s better to err on the side of too salty, rather than under-cured. (Eventually, you’ll be able to tell more clearly when your meat is completely cured.) So if you feel it’s ready, take the jowl out of the fridge, and rinse it in cold water to remove the cure. Some of the herbs might stick to the meat and fat, that is fine – just give a good rub over to get the cure off. Dry with a towel.
5. Next, wash your jowls in a few ounces of white wine. The reason you do this, is that it helps neutralize the salt used in curing (at least that’s what I’ve been told by those Who Know). Do the job really thoroughly, rubbing the wine into the meat and fat. By the way, doing this also adds a lovely flavor to the finished product!
6. The final step is to heavily coat one or both sides of your guanciale with pepper (see note at bottom). Most use black pepper, but we’ve also seen (and enjoyed) guanciale that had cayenne pepper applied. If you don’t like pepper, leave this step out.
7. Make a hole in one end, not too close to the edge of the meat (since it will shrink). Tie some butchers string through the hole, and hang at 55F/75% humidity for at least a month, possibly two if you want a more intense flavor. Your basement in winter should be just cold enough, but you might have to put out some water and a fan to keep the humidity up. We bought a combination thermometer/humidistat for keeping track of it. Don’t let the temperature go above 60° for any lengthy period of time or mold can more easily form.
8. You will know when your guanciale is ready when it’s lost about 25-35% of its initial weight before hanging. The fat will feel softer than the meat. That is fine.
9. Once dried, it will keep in the fridge easily for many weeks, or vacuum-sealed and frozen, far longer.
Notes: We recommend cutting off the outer skin before curing begins. You could do it after, but why not let the salt penetrate into the meat and fat more easily and speed things up? You will see commercial guanciale with the skin left on. The problem with this is that you’ll probably not want to eat cooked pieces with skin on them. It gets very hard as the guanciale dries and isn’t pleasant. Cutting the skin off after drying is difficult if you’re dealing with a whole piece. Do yourself a favor and do it ahead of time.
Another note: This recipe has been edited a couple of times since the original posting. Curing with the wine added (which I first tried) didn’t work as well as washing each piece thoroughly afterwards with it. There were also a few things that were unclear in the way I originally wrote the recipe. Hopefully, that’s fixed now.