Hannah Palmer Egan
Pork jowl, salt, spices, sugar
In America, we live and die by bacon — what carnivore can argue with the salted, smoked belly of a beast, fried to an irresistible crisp in its own fat?
Even as pork lovers decried recent studies linking cured meats
to cancer, our food culture seems to be suffering from a bout of bacon fatigue. On December 30, I nodded in agreement when longtime Farmhouse Tap & Grill barman Jeff Baker (now at Farrell Distributing as a beer/cider educator) panned "International Bacon Day" via Twitter
: "May I just say...FUCK BACON," he wrote. "Grow up. Be your own person. Find a food that's actually interesting." Baker wasn't alone in his ire. And it's worth noting that the phrase "bacon fatigue" — a term I thought I just made up — was added to Urban Dictionary
in May 2013.
So while I'll be the first to cozy up to a tater-tot poutine smothered with bacon gravy
, my affection has lately shifted to another porcine preserve. Guanciale is Italian cure made with pig cheeks, and it's a lot like bacon: mostly fat with meaty striations, salty and porky and impossibly rich. And it's super easy to make.
Having never cured any meat in my life, I made one last winter. I tossed it into a carbonara
, sprinkled it over a salad
, and then kind of forgot about it. Its flavor was strong — pointedly pungent and too intense to eat except in the tiniest quantities. I stashed it and spaced it, vaguely hoping it'd get better with time. Then I rediscovered it in my crisper a month or so ago.
With guests at the table, I hacked off a fat strip and served it in tiny bits with cheese. It was incredible. Creamy and chewy and complex, its flavors had mellowed with age. Gone was the harsh sting I'd encountered before. It's lovely in pastas, salads, dips or entrées, eggs
— anything, really. Like bacon, but way more interesting.
I had to make it again — and this time I decided to make two instead of one.
I called up Holly Jeffries at Sugar Mountain Farm
(this family recently began butchering its own hogs
on-farm), ordered up a couple jowls, and started my cure over the holidays. The recipe is easy — all you really need is meat, salt and patience — and it's an accessible point of entry for folks who are interested in curing meat at home.
Now? I wait.
Hannah Palmer Egan
- 5 pounds pork jowl (2-3 jowls, with or without skin)
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 1 cup sea salt
- 1/4 cup white granulated sugar
- 2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1-2 teaspoons fennel seed
- 1-2 teaspoons cumin
- Rinse the jowls and pat dry. Trim away any loose hunks of red meat (these are great in stir-fry or long-braised in red sauce), and check to make sure the salivary glands have been removed (these are located near the center of the jowl: 2-3 gray-pink little orbs about the size of a nickel). If you find any, cut them out, too.
- Smash and peel the garlic and rub the clove into the flesh, then chop the clove and scatter it over the meaty side of each jowl. Pour the maple syrup over the jowls and massage it in.
- Mix the salt, sugar and spices. Spread a thin layer onto a cutting board and place the meat, skin side down, on top. Pour the remaining salt over the jowls and massage into the meat. Flip the cheeks over so any excess salt falls onto the cutting board, then flip again so the the skin side picks up as much of the salt as possible.
- Seal the meat in a plastic bag or shallow tub and refrigerate 5-10 days. The meat will begin to release liquid almost immediately. Leave this liquid in the bag, but turn the jowls daily and continue to massage the cure into the meat.
- After a couple days, the pork will begin to firm up. When it's uniformly stiff through the thickest section (this will take 4-5 days for a thin jowl and closer to two weeks for a thicker one), remove the meat from the bag, rinse well, and hang to dry in a cool, somewhat humid place. You want it to be above freezing but below 60 degrees, so a root cellar, mud room or cool corner of the house are all good spots. Darkness is better than light, but, last winter, I hung my guanciale near a drafty window in the pantry and it worked out fine. I know several folks who hang cured meats in their garages, basements, etc., which work well, as they tend to be a little damp and you want 60-70 percent humidity. If you have a cool corner or closet but it's quite dry, place a pot of water below the meat to moisten the air (refill it when it evaporates).
- Let the jowl hang for at least a month, until it loses about a third of its weight. If you don't have a scale, let it hang for six weeks or so, until it's dry and quite stiff all around (slightly firmer than slab bacon). In the right conditions, extra hanging time won't hurt. When your gut tells you it's ready, place the guanciale in a bag or plastic bin and refrigerate so it doesn't continue to dry.
- After drying, your cure will be ready to eat, but I'd let it age in the fridge for as long as you can stand. The longer you wait, the better it'll be! The flavors really smooth and mellow out after 3-6 months. You can cut a little piece off and taste it, shelve it, taste it again — the meat will let you know when it's ready.
Hannah Palmer Egan
Rubbing the cure into the meat