Everyone knows that bacon comes from pork belly. But does it always? The bacon everyone knows about is the bacon that the farmer and the butcher were willing to sell. The bacon that they don’t tell you about comes from hog jowl, and savvy farmers keep it for themselves.
The more an animal uses a muscle, the more flavor it develops. While pigs are not known for their daily situp routines, they are fond of chewing. Pig cheeks get an almost constant workout and develop amazing flavor as a result.
Hog jowl recipes often have you cook the pork cheeks fresh. They’ll tell you to braise the cut for an extended period of time in a flavorful liquid and that long cook time cuts through the toughness. Instead of a long braise, I’d suggest trying your hand at home-cured meat, which uses time and beneficial lactic acid bacteria (just like in yogurt) to tenderize the meat.
Guanciale, or salt-cured hog jowl, is made by first curing pork cheeks in salt and spices, and then cleaning off the extra salt and hanging the jowl bacon to cure for at least 3 weeks, but preferably 12 to 16 weeks for the best flavor.
Once the hog jowl is completely cured, slice it up and give it a quick pan fry. Enjoy it on its own, or use it to top traditional Italian recipes like pasta carbonara.
Where to Buy Pork Jowls
The first step to curing a hog jowl is getting a hog jowl. That can be tricky. If you don’t butcher your own pork, you’ll have to sweet talk your local butcher into saving on for you. Often they’ll want you to buy the whole head, which means you’ll get two jowls but also a lot of other pig head parts to deal with.
This particular pig jowl comes from the on-farm butcher shop at Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont. A few years back, before we started raising our own pigs, we kicked in for their butcher shop Kickstarter campaign. The payout was a pile of pork, harvested in their on-farm setup, as soon as it was built.
Butcher shops are not built overnight, and about 5 years later well after we’d started raising and butchering our own hogs, the call came in. It was time to pick up our fresh sugar mountain pork. Luckily, we’d decided to take this year off of raising pigs, so the extra porky goodness was perfectly timed.
Walter Jefferis was kind enough to give us a tour of the setup, before handing over a huge pile of porky goodness. After the tour and our long conversation, he seemed to gather that we were serious pork fans. He offered to throw in a big box of “oddments” and we were ecstatic. Hog jowls, trotters, leaf lard…all sorts of goodness.
If you’re ever in Vermont, call ahead to Sugar Mountain Farm and there might just be a hog jowl waiting for you…
How to Make Guanciale
Recipe Adapted from the Basic Cure Recipe in Charcuterie
Salt Cure Time: 6 to 10 Days (refrigerator)
Aging Time: 3 to 16 weeks (hanging in a cool place)
This salt cure recipe will make roughly 2 ounces of cure, which is enough to cure 1 pound of meat. If you have more meat, adjust accordingly. This is a nitrite-free recipe, but if you prefer the added safety of nitrites in your cured meats, feel free to add 1/2 teaspoon of instacure No. 2
1 lb hog jowl, skin on
1/4 cup salt
3 Tbls. brown sugar
1 Tbls. garlic powder
1 Tbls. paprika (Preferably Smoked Paprika for extra flavor)
1 Tbls. thyme
1 Tbls. Rosemary
1/2 tsp. nutmeg, fresh ground
- Trim the pork jowl to remove any remaining salivary glands or lymph nodes.
- Mix all the cure ingredients together until everything is thoroughly incorporated. Take it by handfuls and massage it into the hog jowl, coating every surface with a liberal amount of the cure.
- Place the salt cure covered hog jowl into a non-reactive container (glass, ceramic or plastic). A glass Pyrex baking dish works well, or a large Ziploc bag. The container should be sized so that the jowl just barely fits, leaving little extra space. That way, the cure will be held right up against the meat.
- Cover the jowl with any remaining cure, and cover the container with a lid or plastic wrap.
- Turn the jowl once per day to ensure that the cure penetrates the meat evenly.
- After 6 days, check the jowl for firmness. The thickest part should feel firm and stiff. If it’s still spongy at all, put it back in the cure and check it in a few more days. A whole jowl generally takes 7 or 8 days but can take up to 10. The longer the cure, the safer the result but it’ll be saltier as well.
- Once the meat has stiffened, take it out of the salt cure. Rinse off any remaining cure in the sink, and pat the jowl completely dry.
- Wrap the meat in cheesecloth (or leave it open) and hang it in a cool moist place to age. Ideal conditions are 50 to 60 degrees and at least 55 percent humidity, like a basement or back pantry.
- Allow the meat to cure for at least 3 weeks, but ideally much longer. It should continue to develop flavor and become slightly dryer for 12 to 16 weeks. Much longer than that and the cut may dry out too much unless the humidity is just right.
- When the cure is complete, store the meat well wrapped in the refrigerator. It should be good for months.