Though guanciale may be an unfamiliar word for native English speakers (say it: gwaan-CHAA-lei), there's nothing difficult about eating the rich and salty Italian cured meat. Also called pork jowl or pork cheek, this cut of meat resembles bacon in that it's fatty, often gets served thinly sliced, and a little bit goes a long way. Find it on charcuterie boards, wrapped around vegetables, chopped up and tossed with pasta, and served in sandwiches. It's also sometimes strewn over wood-fired pizzas for a salty, meaty bite.
What Is Guanciale?
Taken from the cheek of a pig, guanciale is a rich, fatty piece of meat that often gets cured before it's used. Guanciale is mainly found in Italian pasta dishes from central Italy in areas such as Umbria and Lazio. Two of the most common or well-known dishes that feature guanciale include spaghetti alla carbonara and amatriciana, which both include some of the meat in the sauce. The flavor of the guanciale permeates each bite and gives the sauce an umami richness and a bit of a salty, velvety backbone.
Though pork cheeks can be obtained raw, most of the guanciale found gets cured. The raw cut of meat needs to be trimmed of excess fat and glands, something butchers often do before selling.
How to Cook Guanciale
Dice up or throw a thin slice of guanciale on the frying pan and let it simmer in its own fat, crisping the bit of meat available. From there either cool or add the hot chunks to a salad, mixed with eggs, on top of pizza or in any food that could use a punch of pork flavor. If sliced, the cooked guanciale tastes great in a sandwich or even served as a side with vegetables and crusty bread.
Since it's cured, the meat doesn't have to be cooked. Try it cold and sliced thin on a charcuterie board, sandwich, over greens and wrapped around vegetables that then get grilled. The meat can add a lot of flavor to any dish without weighing it down, and, since it's high in fat and rich in taste, a large amount isn't needed. That's why guanciale often gets mixed with pasta and sauces, and it's also good cut into small pieces and thrown into a soup.
What Does Guanciale Taste Like?
There's an undertone of bacon to the flavor of guanciale, but without that telltale smoky note. Overall, guanciale tastes like a fatty slab of pork, one that's salty and rich and when sliced thinly, melts in the mouth. It pairs great with just about any food, but especially vegetables and cheeses, giving these ingredients a meaty essence that's subtle on the palate.
Guanciale vs. Bacon
Though these two meats can be swapped for the other, they come from different parts of the pig. Guanciale is cut from the cheek and bacon comes from the back, belly and side of the animal. The small space guanciale comes from means there's less of it, so it's a more expensive cut of meat that's not as easy to find as bacon. The fat on pork cheek also proves more refined, with less gristle, something that gives guanciale a velvety texture better for eating on a charcuterie plate. The biggest difference between these two cuts, however, is the lack of smoke in guanciale, as bacon is traditionally smoked.
Guanciale, also called pork cheek or jowl, has a lot of similarities to bacon, which means you can substitute it in most recipes that call for those ingreidents. Use a little to spruce up a soup or vegetable dish, or make it the star of the dinner show with one of these dishes.
Where to Buy Guanciale
In general guanciale gets imported from Italy, which mean Italian markets or upscale delis will most likely carry the food. Pork cheek isn't found in the run-of-the-mill grocery store, though some smaller markets with full meat counters may be importing it. Guanciale easily can be purchased online from many reputable importers, though it's all cured. To find raw pork cheek it's best to check with a local butcher or free-range ranch in the area.
Once sliced, guanciale can be stored in an air-tight bag in the refrigerator. The meat will keep this way for about two weeks, though if it's a solid pork cheek expect it to preserve for close to a month. Guanciale can also be frozen in a sealed container. When fresh treat as any piece of raw meat and keep frozen if saving for more than a week, or in the refrigerator.
Nutrition and Benefits of Guanciale
Aside from taste and enhancing other foods, there's not much going for guanciale in terms of nutrition. It's full of sodium and fat, with a trace amount of protein and iron. There are very small amounts of potassium and iron, but the main point of eating guanciale is not for nutrition—a little goes a long way, and it adds a deeper flavor to a meal.