Curing the jowl and other assorted parts was the easy part. Hank’s recipe calls for an aromatic, slightly pungent combination of kosher salt, sugar, garlic powder, black pepper, allspice, dried thyme and crushed bay leaves. He also recommends incorporating a small amount of Instacure No. 2, a curing salt that contains both sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate, which is typically used when aging meats for six months or longer. I had no intention of hanging my jowl that long, so I opted for so-called pink salt, which you can buy at Williams-Sonoma. The pink mixture includes only a small percentage of sodium nitrite to preserve the meat’s color, prevent rancidity in the fat and avert death by botulism.
I really wanted to avert death by botulism, which is why I embraced pink salt like a lost dog on its return home. I was imagining the headline: “Post food writer kills 10 in guanciale-related dinner party.”
The truth is, I was being overly cautious. Because guanciale is usually pan-fried in its own fat before eating — hence its sporty nickname, face bacon — there is little or nothing to fear about eating the aged jowl. What’s more, says Anda, if you hang your jowl long enough, say nine months or more, the meat will have lost all of its water, that incubator of hazardous bacteria.
I took my jowl and other parts out of the cure after 10 days and then improvised a method to poke a hole through the leathery meat in order to hang the cuts in the basement. I have since learned from Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller’s book “In the Charcuterie” (Ten Speed Press, 2013) that you should punch a hole through the meat side only, avoiding the nearly impenetrable skin of the jowl. Instead, I took a heavy-duty meat-injector needle and corkscrewed my way through both the meat and skin, hoping not to spear my fingers in the process.
Deciding where to hang the jowl in our meat locker of a basement proved tougher than expected. The basement has a surprising number of windows, illuminating most of the subterranean living area during daylight hours. Finding a dark corner was nearly impossible. I finally decided to hang the meat next to our laundry area, which required one small modification: I had to nail up an old blanket to cover a nearby window. I placed a hygrometer next to the jowl meat to track humidity levels and then proceeded to do what all charcuterie makers do: I waited.
Actually, for the next seven weeks, I treated that hanging meat like a newborn child — well, a newborn child whose crib was swinging from the basement ceiling. I visited the jowl regularly, checking to see, I guess, whether our beagle had somehow managed to build a pyramid and wolf down the meat for an afternoon snack. Each week, I’d take photos of the jowl and post them on Facebook, as if I were chronicling my baby’s every adorable moment for friends and relatives. People would leave comments.
“Looking good,” commented Enzo Fargione, chef and owner of Osteria Elisir, who was already cooking up ways to eat them. “Amatriciana anyone?”