Sunday, January 22, 2017

What we’ve learned about home-curing guanciale

This year’s batch and it tastes amazing.
Back in 2012 when I initiated this blog, the second recipe I shared was one for curing your own guanciale or cured and air dried hog jowl. If that doesn’t sound at all appetizing, please read on!

Most people outside of Italy had never heard of this delicacy and it was tough to find, even in Toronto with it’s very large Italian population. I did manage to snag some which was made in the Niagara region, and it was very good.

However, I was already well down the path to making our own. I found a recipe online and cured two jowls. It was easy, quick (other than the hanging time while it dried) and tasted really good. Over time and talking with People Who Know About These Things, the recipe was refined a little, and like doing anything over and over, it got even quicker and easier. In fact, we even came up with some very useful shortcuts in the method.

Last year, we did up four medium-sized jowls in November. What with lads who like it as much as we do, sharing a bit here and there with friends, and of course, cooking our own meals, we nearly ran out. For the first time in six years, I was faced with the prospect of having to buy some!

Since 2012 when I wrote the post mentioned above, hog jowls have gone mainstream. Two blocks from my house at Zito’s Marketplace (a fantastic Italian grocery store), they carry imported Italian guanciale. Many deli counters in big stores carry locally made stuff. You see recipes in women’s magazines that call for guanciale without the blink of an eye. How times have changed!

As summer turns to fall and the temperature plummets, I’m already keeping an eagle eye on the temperature in our basement, waiting for it to drop to around 60°F so that I can get busy making a new batch of guanciale and other salumeri we produce.

So in the last week of October, I went to purchase four gorgeously lean, 2+-pound jowls from my go-to source (Gasparro’s on Bloor St.). Nick, one of the owners, having brought in a half dozen from the farm, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I walked out the door with all six of ’em.

Back home, we set up an assembly line and in short order, chugged through removing the skin, prepping the spices, sugar and salt of our cure mixture, coating each jowl and then bagging them (more on this later). Five days later, they were lightly cured (as I am fond of calling it), rinsed in a bit of white wine (Orvieto this year), generously peppered, and hanging in our basement.

I deemed them ready on December 20th, so we vacuum sealed them and put them in our freezer.

One curing job done! And hopefully enough to last us until next year. Next up: pancetta. Oh my goodness, we’re nearly out!!*

Here’s the recipe again with notes following on things we began making our own guanciale.

Makes slightly less than 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 bunch of fresh 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 dry white wine

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 accompanied by some good old elbow grease. Combine he herbs with the salt and sugar. Remove the leaves from the thyme, discarding the stalks. You should have about 1 tablespoon’s worth. (And do not use dried thyme. It just doesn’t taste as good as fresh.) Add these to the curing mixture, and stir everything to combine thoroughly.

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 and meat, so poke around thoroughly. Believe me, you don’t want them in your finished project.

3. In a large zip lock bag, combine the cure ingredients and the jowl.Thoroughlyrub the cure into the meat on all sides. Seal the bag and pop it in the fridge for four to seven days. Every other day, redistribute the cure over the meat by rubbing the meat almost in a kneading motion, and when it goes back into the fridge, make sure it’s lying on the opposite side from what it was when you took it out. It will be throwing off some liquid, 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 your guanciale 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 thoroughly 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 paper 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 aroma and 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 used is 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 the narrow end, not too close to the edge of the meat (since it will shrink). Run some butchers string through the hole, tie, and hang at 55°F/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 drying is complete, it will keep in the fridge easily for many weeks, or vacuum-sealed and frozen, for far longer.

Notes: We strongly recommend removing the 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 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. Removing the skin after drying is also more difficult. Do yourself a favor and do it ahead of time. If you aren’t equipped to do it yourself, ask your butcher to do it for you.

What wine to use for the final wash? You don’t need to buy an expensive bottle, but you don’t want plonk, either. A decent Italian pinot grigio won’t set you back much, or a Colli Albani. We prefer Orvieto for its flavor and aroma. Experiment all you want and if you find something you think really works well, please let all of us know!

We now use our vacuum sealer as part of the curing process. Each piece of guanciale is put into a bag and most of the air is removed, then the bag is sealed. The benefit is two-fold: the bags can’t leak (as long as your seal is sturdy), and the liquid (actually brine) that forms during the curing process is kept close to the meat which speeds up curing and helps keep it even throughout the jowl. Actually, we do this with all the meat we cure, except those things which require soaking in brine (peameal bacon, ham, etc). That’s just easier to do in a plastic bucket.

Keep an eye on your guanciale while it hangs. I generally check it out every day (takes only seconds). What you want to watch for is any green or black mold forming on it. White mold is okay. It actually adds to the flavor. If you find any green or black mold, if you catch it really early (hence my recommendation to check your guanciale frequently), it can safely be removed by rubbing it with a rag that’s been soaked in white vinegar. If the growth of the mold is well-advanced, then it’s safest to just chuck the meat and take it as a hard-won lesson. We know pepper our guanciale on both sides (What can I say? We like pepper!) and I’m thinking it probably would help keep the bad mold from gaining a foothold. I have no scientific proof this is what happens, but we’ve had no mold on any over the last 8 years since we began making it. That’s at least three dozen cured hog jowls.

Weigh your guanciale once a week and take it down when it’s lost about a third of its weight. If the humidity in your basement or drying locker is low, the outer surface will dry out too quickly. The goal is to dry your cured jowl s-l-o-w-l-y, so the process is even, inside and out.

We keep our guanciale in the freezer (vacuum-sealed) until we need it. Then I just slice off how much I need (easy to do even when it’s frozen because the fat is soft) and seal it in a freezer bag and chuck it back in until next time.

To our minds, guanciale is essential for three favorite pasta dishes: carbonara, Amatriciana, and alla grigia. We also crisp some up and use it with shredded Brussels sprouts and pine nuts (a recipe I’ll share in the future). It is very fatty, but the rendered fat has a lovely flavor and especially in the three pasta dishes above takes them out of the realm of ordinary eating. If you’ve had any of them made with pancetta or (horrors!) bacon, you’re in for a surprise. That’s exactly what started us off on this culinary side trail.

*I began working on this post a few weeks ago. We’ve since cured the pancetta and it’s now hanging in the basement drying. However based on the amount of pancetta we went through in the past year, we’re going to need to make more before this drying season is over. Incidentally, we’re now completely out of pancetta and are faced with buying some. Horrors!

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