Italians really have a way with food. Most people would agree that, when it comes to food, Italians are original and creative. Who else could have come up with something like Guanciale? This Italian cold cut is truly in a class of its own, but many people have managed to find a Guanciale substitute.
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Guanciale (if you are struggling to pronounce this word, say the words “Go on Charlie” VERY quickly and you’ve got this) is an Italian delicacy made from pork jowls or cheeks. The name comes from the Italian word for cheek, ‘guancia’.
Guanciale is a cured meat with a unique flavor that is much stronger than any other meat products made from pork. It has a delicate, smooth texture, and the finished product has very little fat.
Because of the special cut of meat used to make Giancale, the fat content is highly soluble, and most of it melts off during the cooking process. This is what gives the meat its lovely smooth texture.
How Is Guanciale Made?
The most difficult part of making Guanciale is finding the perfect piece of meat. Genuine Guanciale is made from the piece of muscle lining the inside of the pig’s cheek. This muscle is so tasty because it is very pliable. Therefore it is super soft.
The meat needs a good spice rub, made up of spices like ground black pepper, sage, thyme, rosemary, and garlic. After the spice rub has been massaged thoroughly into the pork jowl, the meat then has to be left for anything from 3-12 weeks to cure.
Curing the meat for a long time enhances and strengthens the unique flavor of the Guanciale.
The curing has to be done in an environment where you are able to control the humidity levels, as the meat needs to lose about 25-30% of its weight through moisture loss. But this has to be done very gradually. Therefore it is best done in a special curing chamber.
As you can see, making genuine Guanciale can be a complicated and tricky process. As a result, authentic Guanciale can be difficult to come by. That is why many people look for a Guanciale substitute.
How Is Guanciale Meant To Be Eaten?
For many years, genuine Guanciale could not be eaten in the USA. It was banned by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) because it was made from a prohibited cut of meat.
After an outbreak of swine flu in the 1970s, Guanciale, together with numerous other cured meats imported from Italy, was prohibited. It was around this time that creative chefs started to come up with Guanciale substitutes.
Now that the ban has been lifted and Guanciale is again permitted, it has regained its popularity.
Some people like to eat Guanciale on its own, cut up into small pieces, but it is primarily used as an ingredient in many Italian dishes, like spaghetti carbonara. It is also used to add a special flavor to certain sauces, like Amatriciana sauce.
The cut of meat used for Guanciale, from the pork jowl, has a completely different flavor, because of the fat in this piece. The flavor is quite intense, so one only needs to use a small quantity of meat in these dishes in order to give them that special taste.
Guanciale is often used as an interesting addition to certain vegetable dishes. Sautéed vegetables are quite delicious with a few pieces of Guanciale added for extra flavor and protein.
Guanciale substitutes are a cheaper and easier way to enjoy this delicacy, and there are numerous options available that will work well. You could possibly not even be able to tell the difference.
At the end of this article, I will share one of my special recipes with you, in which I have used one of the more readily available substitutes for Guanciale. You will be surprised at how easy this is to prepare, and how utterly yummy it is to eat. You might never bother with finding genuine Guanciale again.
If you are looking for a good Guanciale substitute, you could try any of the following.
Pancetta is a well-known Guanciale substitute, readily available in America. It is a type of salami made from pork belly. It is salted, spiced, and cured in much the same way as real Guanciale, but it has a slightly different flavor and texture.
Pancetta is often used to add flavor and substance to sauces and soups. It is highly versatile and is often added to dishes to make them more interesting and tasty. It will enhance the flavor of a sauce in a similar way to Guanciale.
Bacon is often used as a Guanciale substitute, because, like Guanciale, it is also meat derived from pork, and is also cured. However, one major difference between bacon and Guanciale is that bacon is smoked.
Because it has been smoked, bacon has a stronger flavor than Guanciale. Like Guanciale, bacon can be used to add flavor to sauces, soups, and stews and of course, it can be eaten plain, or as an accompaniment to many other dishes. After all, don’t most of us love sitting down to a breakfast of iconic bacon and eggs?
Prosciutto can be used as a Guanciale substitute in most recipes. Prosciutto is also made from pork meat, but, unlike Guanciale, it comes from the hind leg of the pig. This cut has different fat content to the meat from the jowl that is traditionally used for Guanciale. The ratio of fat to meat affects the flavor and texture of the meat.
Prosciutto is also salted, spiced, and cured for a few weeks and left to dry out gradually in a cool place. If your recipe calls for Guanciale, and you cannot get any, you could use Prosciutto and it would have a similar flavor. But be aware that the texture will not be as smooth and creamy.
Speck is also Italian specialty meat and comes from a region in Italy where the meat is usually only lightly smoked and then dry-cured.
Although speck is made from the same cut as prosciutto, it has a slightly lower fat content, with a higher ratio of meat to fat. As a result, the flavor is not quite as strong, however, it also makes a fairly good guanciale substitute.
When added to pastas, sauces, soups, and stews speck will give an interesting twist to the flavor and will taste wonderful.
Using A Guanciale Substitute In Recipes
Any accomplished chef will tell you that no matter how talented a cook you may be, your skills are worthless without the right ingredients.
Select your fresh produce carefully, to ensure that you use only the best tomatoes. If a recipe calls for a particular type of cheese, source the best quality of that cheese that you can lay your hands on. Wine? Don’t use cheap plonk.
Quality ingredients will yield a quality dish that everyone will enjoy and rave about. Inferior ingredients will produce nothing more than a mediocre result.
So does this mean that you should never substitute ingredients in a recipe? Of course not. But when substituting, take care to obtain the best possible quality of the substituted ingredient. In this way, your dish will remain almost true to the original.
As promised, here is my favorite recipe using a Guanciale substitute.
PASTA WITH AMATRICIANA SAUCE
The town of Amatrice is a little-known place in the mountainous regions of Lazio in Italy. It was here that this delicious sauce was first created. Truth be told, it is intended to be made with Guanciale, but I have experimented and played around with a few recipes, and I found that it works just as well with pancetta or prosciutto.
- 3½ ounces pancetta or prosciutto cut up into small pieces
- 2 tablespoons good quality olive oil
- 1 pound ripe fresh tomatoes, chopped, or a can of Italian tomatoes
- 1 chopped red onion
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ½ teaspoon sweet paprika
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound good quality spaghetti
- 3 ½ ounces strong pecorino cheese, grated
- Put the oil in a pan and gently brown the onion.
- Add the pieces of meat and continue to sauté over medium heat, until the meat is lightly browned and slightly crispy around the edges.
- Add the tomatoes and spices.
- Continue stirring gently until heated through.
- Simmer over low heat for 10-15 minutes, until the sauce starts to thicken.
- Take off the stove and set it aside.
- Cook the spaghetti until it reaches the al dente stage.
- Drain the spaghetti well and place in a serving bowl.
- Toss with the grated Pecorino, reserving a little to sprinkle on top.
- Pour the sauce over and sprinkle the remaining Pecorino on top.
- Serve immediately, while still piping hot.
This dish is so delectable that, when made like this, you wouldn’t even know that this Amatriciana sauce was made using a Guanciale substitute.