Guanciale, made at home: A cure for the winter blues

(Katherine Frey/ The Washington Post ) - All that’s left of the author’s guanciale, which cured in the refrigerator for 10 days, then hung in the basement for seven weeks.

(Katherine Frey/ The Washington Post ) - All that’s left of the author’s guanciale, which cured in the refrigerator for 10 days, then hung in the basement for seven weeks.

The whole three-month process started as a simple question about leftovers. Specifically, what was I going to do with the rest of the pig face that I had peeled off its skull a few months earlier?

Sorry, I don’t mean to be graphic. But if we’re going to talk about nose-to-tail cooking as if we’re discussing modern fashion (“Oh, beef-cheek tacos are so 2011”), then we ought to deal with facts without resorting to antiseptic, boy-in-a-bubble terminology. The fact is, I sliced up a pig’s head earlier this year for a story, rolled up half of its face, bagged it and stuffed it into the freezer. I didn’t want to waste an ounce of that meat because a) an animal had given up its life for it, b) I felt a bond with the poor beast after butchering its head, and c) I didn’t want Homeland Security to knock on my door after discovering a slightly bloody pig’s face in the trash.

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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I knew that guanciale, or “face bacon,” was a fine option for a rank amateur in the world of cured meats, because in Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s updated book “Charcuterie” (W.W. Norton, 2013), the authors write that hog jowl is “fantastic, and probably the easiest meat to cure for the home cook.” My mentor via e-mail, the puckish hunter and author Hank Shaw, said much the same thing when I first pinged him in January about his guanciale recipe, which describes his home curing equipment in terms that would make Walter White from “Breaking Bad” envious: an old fridge hooked up to separate regulators to control temperature and humidity.

“Just hang the sucker” in the basement, the recently minted James Beard Award winner advised me. “And if it develops green or black mold, scrub it off with a vinegar-soaked cloth. Check it every other day or so while it hangs. Easy peasy.”

Hank warned that my biggest problem in Washington wouldn’t be too little humidity, as I’d feared, but too much of it. He closed his brief-but-encouraging note with a winky emoticon. I couldn’t decipher whether it was an ironic wink, as if to indicate all that he had just written was hog slop, or a fraternal wink to signal that I was about to join the ranks of charcuterie obsessives, with all the pros and cons involved. I was hoping for the latter.

Arguably the hardest part for someone with no experience with guanciale is determining exactly which part of the head to use. Sure, you could just wander over to Red Apron at Union Market or the Mosaic District and pick up a fresh, pre-ordered hog jowl, all pre-cut and pretty. But when you’re using a large, floppy expanse of semi-frozen face meat that you sliced off weeks ago, you might find yourself like me: a newbie unsure where the line should be drawn between jowl and cheek. I decided not to worry about it. I cured a random selection of pieces that I had cut up, each with the skin still intact. I suspect that would not pass inspection in Italy.

Charcuterie experts and cookbook authors alike dictate that, when preparing a jowl for the initial salt cure, you should trim away the grayish glands buried in a top layer of fat on the meaty side of the jowl. “The glands are edible,” says Nate Anda, the butcher and chef behind Red Apron. “They’re just ugly.” They also oxidize, Anda notes, and that can turn your creamy white slab of guanciale — with that flashy red racing stripe of muscle down the middle — into something too homely to display in a meat counter. The glands apparently aren’t so tasty, either.

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?”

As the weeks ticked off, my concern came back around to humidity — or a lack of it. Many recipes call for a relative humidity of around 50 to 60 percent. My hygrometer was registering around 40 percent, tops, which I feared might dry out my budding guanciale. I shared my anxiety with Hank as well as with friend and preserving pro Cathy Barrow (a.k.a., Mrs. Wheelbarrow, co-creator of Charcutepalooza in 2011). Cathy suggested placing a bowl of water near the jowl (but “high enough that the dog doesn’t drink it”) and aiming a fan at the bowl to create a moist environment. Hank’s advice was simpler: He told me to spritz the meat every day or two.

He also scolded me: “And, dude, get a cheap fridge setup like I use. Cost me less than $200, including the regulator.”

Several weeks and many spritzes later, I had guanciale, quite firm to the touch. I also had friends and colleagues who wished to relieve me of my guanciale. Much to their surprise, I didn’t sample my face bacon until several weeks after I had released the jowl from its hanging prison. I waited until I could do a side-by-side comparison with the guanciale that Anda sells at Red Apron. I have to admit: Despite a number of flaws in my approach (high among them the odd scraps of head meat that I used), my guanciale stacked up favorably against Anda’s when both were crisped in a pan. I might even be so bold as to say that mine had a touch more flavor. It definitely had a pronounced saltiness, which you could argue is a flaw (but not in my book).

“There’s a reason why it’s a gateway for people to do these things,” Anda says about guanciale. “The first time you do it, it’s not going to be perfect, but it’s going to be good.”

Now the fun part: How to use the guanciale in the kitchen? Many people suggested two perennial favorites, bucatini all’Amatriciana and spaghetti alla carbonara. Palena chef and proprietor Frank Ruta forwarded me one of his secret uses for guanciale: rendering squares of it in a pan with “a good amount of olive oil and a sprig of marjoram, sage or thyme.” Ruta uses this fatty solution as a basting liquid to finish a thick piece of previously seared fish (such as halibut or striped bass) in a pan over medium heat. He’ll drizzle the plated fish with a spoonful of the basting liquid and garnish it with chopped parsley and some crisped-up guanciale pieces.

“While many recipes call for pancetta as a substitution” for guanciale, Ruta e-mailed me, “it really isn’t. Guanciale is a little richer and lends a more unctuousness feel to the final dish.”

Without much question, the dish I opted to prepare with my guanciale oozed richness. Elisir’s Fargione sent me a recipe for braised lamb ragu from his forthcoming cookbook, “Visual Eats: A Behind the Scenes Look at Modern Italian Cooking,” set for release this fall by Keith Publications. The chef claims that the recipe was born from an accident: He had skipped out for lunch and left a leg of lamb in the oven. Instead of trashing the overcooked leg, Fargione opted to slice it thinly, dump the meat into a pot with a full half-pound of guanciale and braise the pork and lamb cuts into a pine-scented sauce of great depth.

When I sampled the ragu over gnocchi, I was struck by the fact that my guanciale had been rendered almost invisible. An ingredient that had spent weeks in a dark basement reaching maturity was now braised into oblivion in a matter of minutes. Was this the ending I had imagined for my jowl? Not really. But one taste of Fargione’s ragu and I knew that the guanciale had gone to a better place.

But what about me? Where did I come out in this process? Put it this way: I’m already planning to hang another round of jowls, this time letting them age for nine months or longer. I want to taste that super-aged guanciale (think: face ham!) that Anda has been developing at the Red Apron commissary. Now, I just need to buy an old fridge.

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