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 guanciale is cured.
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.
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.
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. Because there's less available meat per animal, it's a more expensive cut of meat. It's also not as easy to find as bacon. The fat on guanciale also proves more refined, with less gristle, something that gives it a velvety texture, which is better for eating on a charcuterie board. The biggest difference between these two cuts, however, is the lack of smoke in guanciale, as bacon is traditionally smoked.
In terms of cooking with guanciale, also called pork cheek or jowl, has a lot of similarities to bacon, which means you can substitute it in many recipes that call for those ingredients; it's no surprise it surfaces a lot in pasta dishes. 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
Historically, guanciale is imported from Italy, which means Italian markets or upscale delis will most likely carry it as part of their cured meats. However, many small American companies are increasingly making their own. Pork cheek isn't often found in the run-of-the-mill grocery store, though some smaller markets with full meat counters may offer it. Guanciale can be purchased online from many reputable importers, although it's not exactly inexpensive.
Once sliced, guanciale can be stored in an airtight bag in the refrigerator. The meat will keep this way for about a week to 10 days, though if it's a solid pork cheek it may fresh for closer to a month. You can also freeze guanciale as you would bacon, in a sealed container.