Sunday, January 22, 2017

What we’ve learned about home-curing guanciale

This year’s batch and it tastes amazing.
Back in 2012 when I initiated this blog, the second recipe I shared was one for curing your own guanciale or cured and air dried hog jowl. If that doesn’t sound at all appetizing, please read on!

Most people outside of Italy had never heard of this delicacy and it was tough to find, even in Toronto with it’s very large Italian population. I did manage to snag some which was made in the Niagara region, and it was very good.

However, I was already well down the path to making our own. I found a recipe online and cured two jowls. It was easy, quick (other than the hanging time while it dried) and tasted really good. Over time and talking with People Who Know About These Things, the recipe was refined a little, and like doing anything over and over, it got even quicker and easier. In fact, we even came up with some very useful shortcuts in the method.

Last year, we did up four medium-sized jowls in November. What with lads who like it as much as we do, sharing a bit here and there with friends, and of course, cooking our own meals, we nearly ran out. For the first time in six years, I was faced with the prospect of having to buy some!

Since 2012 when I wrote the post mentioned above, hog jowls have gone mainstream. Two blocks from my house at Zito’s Marketplace (a fantastic Italian grocery store), they carry imported Italian guanciale. Many deli counters in big stores carry locally made stuff. You see recipes in women’s magazines that call for guanciale without the blink of an eye. How times have changed!

As summer turns to fall and the temperature plummets, I’m already keeping an eagle eye on the temperature in our basement, waiting for it to drop to around 60°F so that I can get busy making a new batch of guanciale and other salumeri we produce.

So in the last week of October, I went to purchase four gorgeously lean, 2+-pound jowls from my go-to source (Gasparro’s on Bloor St.). Nick, one of the owners, having brought in a half dozen from the farm, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I walked out the door with all six of ’em.

Back home, we set up an assembly line and in short order, chugged through removing the skin, prepping the spices, sugar and salt of our cure mixture, coating each jowl and then bagging them (more on this later). Five days later, they were lightly cured (as I am fond of calling it), rinsed in a bit of white wine (Orvieto this year), generously peppered, and hanging in our basement.

I deemed them ready on December 20th, so we vacuum sealed them and put them in our freezer.

One curing job done! And hopefully enough to last us until next year. Next up: pancetta. Oh my goodness, we’re nearly out!!*

Here’s the recipe again with notes following on things we began making our own guanciale.

Makes slightly less than 1 1/2 pounds after drying a 2-pound jowl for 4 weeks

1 pork jowl, around 2 pounds
2 1/2 oz kosher salt (or 7% of meat weight)
2 1/2 oz sugar (or 7% of meat weight)
15 black peppercorns
1 bunch of fresh thyme
2 bay laurel leaves (look for genuine bay laurel)
8-16 juniper berries (depending on how well you like this flavor)
2-4 oz dry white wine

1. Grind up the juniper, peppercorns and bay in a spice grinder until reasonably fine, or grind it the old fashioned way using a mortar and pestle accompanied by some good old elbow grease. Combine he herbs with the salt and sugar. Remove the leaves from the thyme, discarding the stalks. You should have about 1 tablespoon’s worth. (And do not use dried thyme. It just doesn’t taste as good as fresh.) Add these to the curing mixture, and stir everything to combine thoroughly.

2. Using a sharp boning knife or paring knife, remove any glands from the underside of the meat. These will look like small off-white bumps that are reasonably hard. Some might be hiding under the surface of the fat and meat, so poke around thoroughly. Believe me, you don’t want them in your finished project.

3. In a large zip lock bag, combine the cure ingredients and the jowl.Thoroughlyrub the cure into the meat on all sides. Seal the bag and pop it in the fridge for four to seven days. Every other day, redistribute the cure over the meat by rubbing the meat almost in a kneading motion, and when it goes back into the fridge, make sure it’s lying on the opposite side from what it was when you took it out. It will be throwing off some liquid, so make sure those bags remain tightly sealed.

4. After 4-5 days the meat should feel firmer. It could well be done. Just remember: the longer you keep it in the cure, the more salty your guanciale will become. You certainly want the meat to be thoroughly cured, but you don’t want it to be overly salty, either. The thicker the jowl, the longer it will take to cure. Your first time out, it’s better to err on the side of too salty, rather than under-cured. (Eventually, you’ll be able to tell more clearly when your meat is completely cured.) So if you feel it’s ready, take the jowl out of the fridge, and rinse it thoroughly in cold water to remove the cure. Some of the herbs might stick to the meat and fat, that is fine – just give a good rub over to get the cure off. Dry with paper towel.

5. Next, wash your jowls in a few ounces of white wine. The reason you do this, is that it helps neutralize the salt used in curing (at least that’s what I’ve been told by Those Who Know). Do the job really thoroughly, rubbing the wine into the meat and fat. By the way, doing this also adds a lovely aroma and flavor to the finished product!

6. The final step is to heavily coat one or both sides of your guanciale with pepper (see note at bottom). Most used is black pepper, but we’ve also seen (and enjoyed) guanciale that had cayenne pepper applied. If you don’t like pepper, leave this step out.

7. Make a hole in the narrow end, not too close to the edge of the meat (since it will shrink). Run some butchers string through the hole, tie, and hang at 55°F/75% humidity for at least a month, possibly two if you want a more intense flavor. Your basement in winter should be just cold enough, but you might have to put out some water and a fan to keep the humidity up. We bought a combination thermometer/humidistat for keeping track of it. Don’t let the temperature go above 60° for any lengthy period of time or mold can more easily form.

8. You will know when your guanciale is ready when it’s lost about 25-35% of its initial weight before hanging. The fat will feel softer than the meat. That is fine.

9. Once drying is complete, it will keep in the fridge easily for many weeks, or vacuum-sealed and frozen, for far longer.

Notes: We strongly recommend removing the skin before curing begins. You could do it after, but why not let the salt penetrate into the meat and fat more easily and speed things up? You will see commercial guanciale with the skin left on. The problem with this is you’ll probably not want to eat cooked pieces with skin on them. It gets very hard as the guanciale dries and isn’t pleasant. Removing the skin after drying is also more difficult. Do yourself a favor and do it ahead of time. If you aren’t equipped to do it yourself, ask your butcher to do it for you.

What wine to use for the final wash? You don’t need to buy an expensive bottle, but you don’t want plonk, either. A decent Italian pinot grigio won’t set you back much, or a Colli Albani. We prefer Orvieto for its flavor and aroma. Experiment all you want and if you find something you think really works well, please let all of us know!

We now use our vacuum sealer as part of the curing process. Each piece of guanciale is put into a bag and most of the air is removed, then the bag is sealed. The benefit is two-fold: the bags can’t leak (as long as your seal is sturdy), and the liquid (actually brine) that forms during the curing process is kept close to the meat which speeds up curing and helps keep it even throughout the jowl. Actually, we do this with all the meat we cure, except those things which require soaking in brine (peameal bacon, ham, etc). That’s just easier to do in a plastic bucket.

Keep an eye on your guanciale while it hangs. I generally check it out every day (takes only seconds). What you want to watch for is any green or black mold forming on it. White mold is okay. It actually adds to the flavor. If you find any green or black mold, if you catch it really early (hence my recommendation to check your guanciale frequently), it can safely be removed by rubbing it with a rag that’s been soaked in white vinegar. If the growth of the mold is well-advanced, then it’s safest to just chuck the meat and take it as a hard-won lesson. We know pepper our guanciale on both sides (What can I say? We like pepper!) and I’m thinking it probably would help keep the bad mold from gaining a foothold. I have no scientific proof this is what happens, but we’ve had no mold on any over the last 8 years since we began making it. That’s at least three dozen cured hog jowls.

Weigh your guanciale once a week and take it down when it’s lost about a third of its weight. If the humidity in your basement or drying locker is low, the outer surface will dry out too quickly. The goal is to dry your cured jowl s-l-o-w-l-y, so the process is even, inside and out.

We keep our guanciale in the freezer (vacuum-sealed) until we need it. Then I just slice off how much I need (easy to do even when it’s frozen because the fat is soft) and seal it in a freezer bag and chuck it back in until next time.

To our minds, guanciale is essential for three favorite pasta dishes: carbonara, Amatriciana, and alla grigia. We also crisp some up and use it with shredded Brussels sprouts and pine nuts (a recipe I’ll share in the future). It is very fatty, but the rendered fat has a lovely flavor and especially in the three pasta dishes above takes them out of the realm of ordinary eating. If you’ve had any of them made with pancetta or (horrors!) bacon, you’re in for a surprise. That’s exactly what started us off on this culinary side trail.

*I began working on this post a few weeks ago. We’ve since cured the pancetta and it’s now hanging in the basement drying. However based on the amount of pancetta we went through in the past year, we’re going to need to make more before this drying season is over. Incidentally, we’re now completely out of pancetta and are faced with buying some. Horrors!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Think you know what Bolognese sauce is? I thought I did.

If you’re in North America, you no doubt ate plenty of “spaghetti with meat sauce” over the course of your life. I certainly did, and up until a few years ago, I made it a lot since it was a great meal with a growing family and not much time to cook.

Vicki and I went to the UK first in 1990, and there we discovered the Brits call it “Spaghetti Bolognese”. Same dish, different name. Eventually with the rise of “foodie-ism”, the British name crossed the Atlantic and began appearing on menus here, even in Italian restaurants. But the dish was not close to being an accurate representation.

Don’t get me wrong. Spaghetti with meat sauce is decent food, but as I discovered when I started doing in-depth research into this famous dish, what the inhabitants of that northern Italian city consider their most famous dish and what the rest of us thought it is are two completely different things. The Bolognese chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina even went so far as to designate an Official recipe for Ragù alla Bolognese in 1982 and filed it at City Hall.

Going back to this source ( and following the recipe, I can see why they felt forced to do it. Most of the world knows nothing about how this sauce is made — and that’s a shame. Spaghetti Bolognese is a worthy meal. Real Ragù alla Bolognese is an exceptional meal.

First thing you notice: not much tomato. What’s there is mostly for color. Second of all, there’s not even a hint of garlic or herbs. Then there are some other eye-popping ingredient choices: carrots, celery, and milk! I (and many others) was used to this dish being marinara with some fried ground beef thrown in it. Real Bolognese is a different creature altogether.

The second important thing to point out is that, outside of Italy, it’s never served over spaghetti. (What?) The pasta used is almost always tagliatelle or its slightly wider cousin, fettucine. And there’s a very good reason for not using spaghetti. The sauce tends to fall off the thin strands. It sticks to the wider pasta much better. That makes a big difference in how you experience the dish.

I trust the Italians with knowing about good cooking and my first attempt at authentic Bolognese was an eye-opening experience. It is an intensely meaty sauce with assertive flavours and wonderful aroma, especially while it’s cooking. Long, slow cooking is crucial if you want your sauce to develop its full flavour and silky texture.

So, if you’ve read the official recipe via the link above, you know what the basic ingredients are and how simple it actually is to prepare this famous dish. But one thing I’ve discovered is that everyone in Bologna (if not in all of Italy) thinks their nonna made the best Bolognese — and all of those recipes are slightly different. Now that I’ve made it several times, I find I’ve added a few flourishes of my own (slight though they are). I like it better, but that’s just me. One version I ran across recently suggests adding a handful of dried porcini mushrooms, reconstituted, chopped finely and added to the sauce (along with the reconstituting water) after the beef and vegetables are cooked. That’s something that I think I’ll try next.

So here’s what we’ll do. Try the official recipe and I’ll put my slightly-changed one below (because that’s what this blog is about: my views on cooking and food). If you want to try mine, please do. And then let me know what you think. I’ll also include some notes about why you cook it the way you do and the purpose of some of the ingredients.

Rick’s “Mostly Authentic” Ragù alla Bolognese
Serves 4

  • 300 gr (10.5 oz) of ground beef (you want a flavourful cut like skirt of chuck, but it should be lean
  • 150 gr (5 oz) unsmoked pancetta (chop it finely rather than grinding it)
  • 50 gr (2 oz) finely chopped onion
  • 50 gr (2 oz) finely chopped carrot
  • 50 gr (2 oz) finely chopped celery
  • 118 ml (.5 cup) red wine — a hearty one
  • 30 gr (1 oz or 4 Tbs) tomato paste
  • 120 ml (.5 cup) tomato sauce
  • 240 (1 cup) unsalted beef stock
  • 120 ml (.5 cup) whole milk
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 400 gr (scant pound) of fresh tagliatelle or fettucine
If you search the internet for the “official” Bolognese recipe, you will find it in many places with slight variations, and in a few surprising cases, obvious errors. But the basic ideas of the recipe are obvious: not much tomato and a sauce that has little liquid — but tons of flavour!

The three vegetables make up what is called a soffritto in Italy. (The French call this mirepoix and it’s part of the “foundation” of many great sauces.) So it’s not surprising it should be found in this recipe. Many people (I’m talking to you, Hannah!) will be surprised by having carrots and celery in their pasta sauce, but there you go. It works. The key here is to make the dice quite small (about 1/8") so that the veggies amalgamate with the meat as it cooks.

Really good pancetta is critical. We use our own (and if you’re into home curing or feel it’s time to dabble, it’s easy to make). You don’t want the piece you use to be too fatty. Both meats should ideally be hand-minced (rather than ground). I’ll admit, since I have a grinder, that I’ll often grind both meats, but I feel if you’re up for mincing something, at least do the pancetta that way. The texture of the sauce will be the better for it. And don’t use smoked pancetta! It just doesn’t work as well.

The official recipe says that red wine or white wine may be used, but whichever you use should be dry. We prefer red. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but you don’t want a wimpy one. Bold flavour is the key here. An inexpensive Chianti or Nero d’Avola works really well.

We add some tomato sauce (our own homemade) so the finished ragù a bit more “texture”.

Milk is used to also add texture and “smooth out” the flavours, especially the tomato.

Another point where I can’t find a definitive answer is the use of stock or water. Your sauce will definitely need liquid, and to my mind, why not add additional flavour, as well? So I use stock.

One last word, I’m getting more and more dogmatic about weighing and measuring ingredients accurately — certainly on the first few runs at a new recipe. It helps. I’ve written about using a scale in your kitchen and it’s worth considering if you enjoy cooking — and getting predictable results. If you don’t have a scale, though, don’t despair! For the veggies, a smallish yellow onion, a modest carrot and a good-sized celery stalk will do the trick. The rest of the things can be weighed at the grocery store or using a measuring cup.

Now, let’s get cooking!

  1. Over medium heat pour some good-quality olive oil in a heavy pot or small casserole. You want the bottom just covered. When it’s fragrant, add the pancetta and sauté for 3 minutes. Now add the beef and sauté for 3 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Now add the vegetables (and I include a small sprinkle of salt to help sweat the veggies). Doesn’t it smell good? Make sure you thoroughly break up the meat and don’t let this mixture burn!
  2. When the mixture begins to sizzle (indicating all the water from the ingredients has evaporated), add the wine and turn the heat up. Stir the mixture to evaporate it quickly.
  3. When the mixture begins to sizzle again, turn the heat down and add the tomato paste (and tomato sauce if you’re using it), plus the beef stock. Mix well. You want the meat/veg mixture to be covered by about 1 cm of liquid. Use more stock or water if you need it.
  4. Simmer for 2 hours. During that time, stir in a bit of the milk occasionally until it’s all added.
  5. The sauce is done when most of the liquid is gone. Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper.
  6. Cook the tagliatelle or fettucine, drain and divide the sauce among four portions. (Best served in heated bowls.)
  7. Serve with freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano only. (Don’t skimp here, please!)
A green salad preceding the pasta is a good choice. Italians always serve salads as a separate course, and there’s a good reason for that. The dressing conflicts with the star of the show (and the wine) if it’s all served together.

A good bottle of red wine should accompany your ragù. Now’s the time to pull out that bottle of Chianti Classico or Brunello you’ve been saving.

See? No garlic. No herbs. Not much tomato. Real Ragù alla Bolognese. And it tastes amazing.

Who knew?