Guanciale – An Introduction
Most people have had, or even cooked, some sort of ‘Carbonara’ style pasta dish at one time or another (Spaghetti alla Carbonara, being especially favored), and generally, this will be made with the unsmoked Italian style bacon known as ‘Pancetta’, or, sometimes even, the regular, everyday smoked bacon commonly served with breakfast. The favoured traditional pork product, however… the ne plus ultra one might say, is the cut you see pictured above known as ‘Guanciale’…
What is Guanciale?
Guanciale (pronounced gwahn-chee-AH-lay) consists of salted and dry-cured hog jowls, or ‘pig-cheeks’ for the more genteel among you.
The preparation of guanciale is a bit more complex than for Pancetta, which is cured belly pork. The fatty jowls are rubbed with salt, sugar and spices (pepper, thyme and fennel are common), and then hung and air-dried for three weeks or so.
In the above picture, you can see a 200-gram piece I bought in Ottawa… You should be able to make out the mixed herb and spice mixture that was used, as well as the string that was looped through one corner in order to hang it. The rind, by the way, though technically edible, is generally sliced away before using the fatty meat beneath.
What does Guanciale Taste Like?
The beauty of Guanciale, in contrast to the belly, is the dense, white, very creamy fat that lends a lovely sweet unctuousness to pasta carbonara, or, indeed, to any other dishes where it is employed. As the product is cured, it can also be eaten ‘raw’ as is and, before cooking myself a carbonara with some of cut you see above, I sampled a little.
I was a little hesitant at first as the cut has a very high ratio of fat to meat, but it actually proved to be delectable. I cut it a little thicker than paper-thin and it was delightfully chewy and unctuously tender at the same time, with the sweet, slightly apple-like flavor of a good prosciutto.
Slices of Guanciale can, of course, be cooked just like belly bacon and the end result is very similar. Here are some small sections that have been pan-fried until fairly crisp, which is how many North Americans prefer their bacon… It is very mild, not unlike regular bacon the has been blanched before frying in order to remove the smoke flavor. I like this, I will confess, but if done too crisply, you lose the unctuousness that gives the cut its appeal. For pasta dishes, and the like, it is ideal if you cook it just until the fat is translucent and only a little crisping and browning is evident at the edges.
How to Use Guanciale
Mostly, of course, Guanciale is used as the decadent focus in several different pasta dishes, most notably the aforementioned Spaghetti Carbonara, Pasta Amatriciana, and Pasta alla Gricia. Naturally, of course, you can use it with any ingredients you like subject to one proviso. Guanciale can be quite salty, depending on how it was cured, and you need to make allowances for this in any dish in which it is used.
Here is a ‘Spaghetti alla Carbonara’ I made with about half of my little chunk of Guanciale.
I used about a half-cup or so of postage stamp sized pieces cut about a quarter inch thick at most and quickly fried them as the spaghetti was boiling. Once the Guanciale was just lightly crispy, and the pasta cooked, I add the spaghetti into the pan with the guanciale, tossed it to coat the strands in the fat, and then added just a little of the pasta water to make a smooth emulsion. Lastly, I pulled the pan from the heat and added a single egg beaten with some grated Parmesan and freshly ground black pepper, tossed to coat and served immediately.
It was, I think, one of the nicest Spaghetti Carbonara preparations I have tried…