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Guanciale and spaghetti all’amatriciana

Homemade guanciale ©DPaul Brown

“You wouldn’t be interested in hog jowls, would you?”

It’s the sort of question that stops you in your tracks. There I was, at the Noe Valley Farmers Market, chatting up the good fellas at the Prather Ranch stand, when one of them popped that question. When my eyebrow went up, he went on to say that a local restaurant had ordered them, but decided they didn’t need them upon delivery. The jowls were now taking up valuable space in their freezer cart, and he had no intention of bringing them back at the end of the day. He offered them to me for two dollars a pound. And just like that, they were mine.

As I sauntered into the house, DPaul asked how the market was. “I got hog jowls!” I squealed, to which he replied with a nonplussed, “oh?” The unspoken reply, I suspect, was “but did you pick up anything we can make for dinner?”

Sure, we could have rendered them then and there, made some chicharrones, but that would be a terrible waste, for hog jowls are the source of one of the most precious and coveted cured pork products: Guanciale. Like pancetta, guanciale (pron. gwan-CHA-leh) is an unsmoked bacon, but it’s got a richer flavor and tends to have a higher fat-to-meat ratio. It’s what’s most traditionally used in the classic Italian dishes pasta alla carbonara and bucatini all’amatriciana. But, it’s relatively rare here in the states, so when you order these dishes, you’re more likely getting it with pancetta — or, criminally, American bacon.

And so I knew I wanted to make guanciale with my lovely pig face fat, but I wasn’t really prepared to undertake that project in the moment. The jowls went into the freezer, and stayed there for a few weeks while I got things in order.

Among the resources I found on how to cure guanciale was one from a veritable master of salumi, Mario Batali. The technique was simple enough: Create a rub of salt and sugar, with pepper and thyme. Coat the jowls, let rest in the fridge for a week, then tie and hang them in a cool, dry place for a few weeks. Luckily, we have a basement that manages to stay under the recommended 60ºF during these cool winter months.

Having never cured meat before, I was both fascinated and trepidacious. Would I botulize both us and our friends with my lovingly cured guanciale? I then came across an excellently written account of one other man’s guanciale-making expedition, and took comfort in knowing that he survived to tell his story. 

So, at the beginning of the year, I thawed my lovely jowls, patted them dry, covered them with the prescribed rub, rested them in the fridge and finally tied them up and hung them to cure in the basement. A small basin lay on the floor to catch any wayward porky drippings. Over the course of a few weeks, the jowls shrank and withered, and the exterior took on a slightly leathery cast. At five weeks, I decided they had reached the desired result, and I cut them down.

Once upstairs, I rinsed off the salty protein coating, and cut them in half. I was pleased to see rosy pink meat marbling through pearly white fat. There was no off odor, just a faintly porky smell. I cut away a thin slice, and gave it a quick fry in a pan like bacon. Once it was drained and cooled, I took a bite. I stopped mid-chew, and my eyes rolled up in my head. The guanciale had an undeniably pleasant pork flavor, and an unexpected but very welcome subtle sweetness. It was tender, with a gentle snap as it gave way to the closure of my teeth. It was, in short, the best bacon ever. 

I cut the jowls into quarters, which each came to about 6 ounces apiece. Conveniently, this is about how much you’ll need to make spaghetti all’amatriciana.

Spaghetti all'amatriciana ©DPaul Brown

Spaghetti all’amatriciana

Traditionally, this is made with bucatini, but around these parts that pasta shape is as difficult to procure as guanciale itself. (Also, you know how I feel about bucatini.) Spaghetti works in a pinch. Pecorino romano is also the traditional cheese to grate over the top, but if you use parmigiano reggiano, I won’t tell.

4-6 oz guanciale, cut into 1/2″ lardons
1 large onion, minced
1 large pinch chili pepper flake
1 qt chopped tomatoes or puree
1/2 lb spaghetti or bucatini
Pecorino romano cheese

Place the guanciale in a large skillet, and set over medium-low heat. Cook until the fat is rendered and the lardons are golden and crisp, but not until fully browned. Remove the lardons with a slotted spoon and transfer onto a paper towel. Drain off the rendered fat, leaving about 1 Tbsp in the pan. (Don’t disposed of the rest of the fat. It’s damn good for all your sautéeing and frying needs.)

Turn up the heat to medium, and add the onions and pepper flake. Saute until the onions are translucent and begin to take on some color (again, not until they brown). Add the tomatoes, bring to a simmer, and cook until the sauce is thick. Add the browned lardons to the sauce.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water until just al dente. Use tongs to grab the pasta and drop directly into the cooked sauce, and toss to combine.

Serve in warmed bowls with a grating of pecorino romano cheese over the top.

Variation: For pasta alla gricia, omit the tomato sauce, and just toss the pasta with the remaining ingredients, adding rendered fat if necessary to coat the pasta.

Related:

Wrightfood uses Michael Ruhlman’s recipe to cure their guanciale. As does Mike’s Table.

The Kitchn uses guanciale in a salad of wilted dandelion and raw kale. Yum!

Better yet, Apple Pie, Patis and Pâté uses guanciale fat to sauté some ramps, a delightful and fleeting early spring vegetable.

Guanciale on FoodistaGuanciale

  • Wow, I am so impressed–curing meat is something I always imagine myself doing one day when I have a glorious cabin in the backcountry, somewhere. Inspired to make it in my little San Francisco apartment! I can only imagine how good this pasta is.

  • Thanks, Kasey! It was surprisingly easy, but the challenge in an urban environment is of course finding a place that you can keep the meat hung up to cure. We're fortunate to have a basement.

  • Ossum! How fabulous.
    I must chat up the Prather boys.

  • Sean, enjoyed your post. Strangely serendipitous that I found this on the same night I was cooking Bucatini all’amatriciana…with pancetta. A friend once tried curing meats in his Berkeley basement…but the dog snuck in and ate them all.

  • Clay! What on earth are the odds? As for Nimal-based mishaps, the closest we had was Reese licking out the porky drippings from the catch basin. Not optimal for her, but no impact to the guanciale. 

  • I’m totally itching to make my guanciale now! I want to go my jowls out of the freezer, but I need a place to hang them. The weather’s warming up so the garage won’t work.

  • That sounds so Italian and authentic to make your own guanciale. That pasta must have been so off the hook!

  • Oh, great – taunt this guy who lives in a place where it never goes below 60F at any point in the year! Thankfully there are delis 🙂
    I used to eat this at least once a week from my high school cafeteria. Obviously yours looks much, MUCH better.

  • EB

    Love, love, love it!!! I snag guanciale at BiRite when they’ve got it and make the most ridiculous mac n cheese with it!
    Kudos to you for trekking the jowls home!

  • Have to report back from the front lines: We used our Hedonia-made guanciale (which we’ve dubbed Sean-ciale) in an un-fricking-believeable batch of pasta carbonara tonight. Seriously the best guanciale I’ve had, and that includes Boccalone, Fatted Calf, and Salumi (mario’s pop, Armandino). I’m thrilled I have another 4oz or so still to use… thank you SO MUCH for sharing this with us.

  • I think we can work something out …

  • You have some left? You have a lot of restraint. Thanks for the field report!

  • Dang. Spaghetti all’amatriciana happens to be one of my most favoritest things. What sort of sparkly things do I have to buy you two to get invited over next time?
    xoM

  • Sweetie, we'll make you a nice plate of pasta anytime you like.

  • Right up my alley! I found your blog via Foodista- delish!

  • Logan

    Surprisingly I have found bucatini at the Latin grocery stores, namely Casa Guadalupe on mission at 25th. Packages are labeled in Italian, an they also carry a few other pasta shapes I can’t find elsewhere.

  • Wow! What a great tip. Thanks!

  • There’s nothing that cured jowl doesn’t make better. Have you tried the same technique with duck breast? The result is even more eye-rolling.

  • Oh, oh dear me. Must get duck breast now!

  • Exact same technique, though I score the fat so it can dry more evenly, and tie each breast up in cheesecloth for ease of hanging. It drips more than pork. Figure about 2 weeks of hang time depending on your humidity. Slice as thin as possible, and make WAY more than you think you’ll need. It’s like crack.

  • Mary

    OK now you have me kicking myself for not visiting the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market lately. Jealous, but also happy for you.

  • Love, LOVE your blog! Must read more than just this entry, but you had me at “lovely pig face fat.”
    Here are my adventures with cured beef… and have you EVER heard of goose skirt? Let’s talk.
    http://www.kristeninlondon.com/salads/cured-fillet-of-beef

  • Well, Sean, I THINK I posted it to Punk Domestics! I’m not very tech savvy. Would you let me know if it worked??

  • SebastianFortLaud

    I got my guanciale at a local, specialty butcher, Smitty’s in Fort Lauderdale. Last night I used it like bacon & the results were good with Brussels Sprouts but…it came out too browned. Using it in this recipe it is proving to be so good it should be labelled a controlled substance. The spices & curing are so magical! My neighbor stopped & poked her head against the screen to ask what I was making!!!

  • I’ve made it a few times since then, and pancetta as well. It’s so easy! You really can do it almost anywhere.

  • Jim

    A lovely story and a great recipe, thank you for sharing.
    I have to be “that guy” and correct you though. Spaghetti
    is infact the traditional pasta eaten with this dish.
    The town of Matriciana actually codified the traditional recipe of the town.
    Heres a link to it in English
    http://www.matriciana.com/england.htm

  • Fascinating!