Earlier this summer I had the pleasure of attending a Whole Hog Butchery class at Kitchen in the Market with local salumi-maker and chef Mike Phillips of Three Sons Meats in Minneapolis. We learned how to breakdown an entire hog for Italian salumi (cured meats), including dry sausage, coppa, hams, pancetta, lardo, etc. Little Foot Farms raised and supplied the pig, which was a rare heritage Gloucestershire Old Spots, an old British “lard” hog that’s know to carry more bacon fat than other breeds. Our hog at just 6 months old had a full 2 inches of back fat on him. After the we cut up the pig and made sausage, the class participants took home the unprocessed parts. I was lucky enough to get a pork jowl, from which I made the classic Italian Guanciale.
The big question in class was why use jowls for curing when you have these giant slabs of belly for bacon? The answer is that pork jowls have some special qualities. First off, they are loaded with fat from our lovely hog. Secondly, jowls have a cheek muscle in them that has worked extremely hard eating every day. It’s what pigs do, right? Hard working muscles equal good flavor. Pork belly muscled don’t work much (not that we don’t love them, too!)
The process for making guanciale is very simple for the home cook. I was inspired by many folks for this recipe, namely Michael Ruhlman, Hank Shaw & Matt Wright. My recipe differs from theirs in that I use more garlic and pepper, but otherwise, they are very similar. Check them out and decide which combo you’d like to use. The basics are that first you use a dry salt cure, then a moderately cool and humid air drying. It takes anywhere from 2 weeks to a month, depending on the size of the jowl and your curing environment. It goes without saying that for a product this primal you should use the best pork you can find. What it eats and how it lives will totally resonate in the taste. The resulting product is totally transformed into porky, fatty goodness with a distinctive flavor. The meat can be sliced thin and eaten raw, but traditionally, it is used in Italian pasta and polenta recipes, where it adds a luscious pork flavor that permeates the dish.
Since I finished my guanciale in the summer, I added my pork to a pot of sweet corn polenta. It was heaven! And even better in my lunch the second day. Below find my version of home-cured guanciale as well a recipe for sweet corn polenta with guanciale.