Guanciale offers a time bomb of flavor
I have many farmer friends who raise pigs in rural Ohio. Over the years, they’ve turned me on to some great “off cuts” that most people don’t see like liver, trotters and neck. One of the most delicious cuts I get from these hogs is the cheek. This fat-laden pillow with a mottled streak of meaty goodness down the center is what the Italians call “Guanciale” after it is cured with salt, sugar and pepper and hung to cold-age for months. After it is sliced thin, it affords a wondrous, deep, fruity porcine flavor to pizzas and pastas. In the southern U.S., this cheek is both cured and smoked and called “Pork Jowl.” I think of guanciale as a flavor time bomb. When it is heated, the fat that is released adds so much complexity to other ingredients that it can be used in many ways in a restaurant or pizzeria.
A nice, crispy slice of guanciale cooks and tastes somewhat like bacon with a fruitier and juicier pork flavor. It also has a silkier texture. It adds a perceptible but hard-to-explain depth of flavor to pastas and sauces. Even though people love guanciale, the usual reaction by modern eaters when they find out that it IS a pig’s face ends in an “EWWW” moment. Some modern diners and pizza eaters are getting more sophisticated and guanciale is one of those pizza toppings that is competing cheek-to-cheek with glorious bacon.
Guanciale’s origin is said to be Abruzzo, Lazio and Umbria, where it was easier to get cooking fat from pork than from olives. This wonderful pork cheek is the basis for iconic Italian pasta dishes, like Carbonara. As with many Italian foods, recipes vary widely. But the craftsmanship in using guanciale is to eat the thin strips raw or to melt the fat from this cured meat to cook other foods with.
I use guanciale in my pizzeria in many ways. For example, I’ve placed paper-thin slices of it on the cornicione (crust) in numerous pizza competitions to melt beautifully like lardo. This is especially effective after cooking a wood-fired pizza with the “dome” method of raising the almost-finished pizza up to the very hot ceiling for a final crisp. If the guanciale is fatty and sliced thin enough, the simple placement on the melty cheese of a hot pie delivers a right-hook of pork goodness.
In the middle of the summer, I slice and par-cook hard vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, potato, parsnips, turnip and celery root in a pizza pan with chunks of guanciale. This is like the Italian “Soffrito,” but not diced. Par-cooking in this wonderful fatty bath does wonders as I gently drag the ingredients around the hot liquid. These veggies are then destined for numerous different pizzas with more guanciale or bacon toppings.
When it comes down to it, guanciale has a broad spectrum of like-minded toppings. Here are some: broccoli and broccoli rabe, mushroom, ginger artichoke, pear, apple, pineapple, onion, parsnip, pea, potato, dill, cilantro, celery, cabbage, beef, fennel, beet, egg, cumin, garlic, beans (think black-eyed peas/cannellini), shrimp, tomato, truffle, watercress, rosemary, rhubarb, coriander, allspice, apricot, Parmigiano, Pecorino, Manchego, ricotta, cheddar, goat cheese, beef, chipotle, blueberry, blackberry, leek, spinach, arugula, pine nuts, walnut, pecan, radicchio, thyme, sage, oregano, fennel, orange, lemon, lime, carrot, rutabaga.
Try this recipe: Butternut Squash and Guanciale Pizza
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio, and has a pizza blog called Pizza Goon. He is an award-winning pizzaiolo, baker, teacher, speaker and author.