Guanciale: All You Need to Know

Photo of guancialePopo le Chien /Wikimedia Commons

Guanciale (pronounced [ɡwanˈtʃaːle]) is a staple Italian cured pork product.

Its origins are in the town of Amatrice, a town 87 miles southeast of Rome in Italy’s Lazio region. The name “guanciale” comes from the Italian word guancia, which means “cheek.”

Guanciale is made by rubbing the cheek or jowl of a pig with salt and spices, aging it for 2 months until it has lost approximately 30% of its own weight.

A fatty cut of pork, guanciale consists of one or multiple strips of savory lean meat between thick layers of succulent lard. It can be sliced thin and eaten raw or cut into thick cubes and browned in a frying pan—but the skin should always be trimmed off.

It’s also an important ingredient in two quintessentially Italian pasta recipes:

Bucatini all’Amatriciana, a humble pasta dish with guanciale, pecorino cheese, tomato sauce, and onions prepared at first by shepherds, peasants, and priests. The fat dripping down from the browned guanciale is intended to act as a substitute for olive oil, which was impractical for the shepherds to carry around in the mountains.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara, a blue-collar pasta dish originally prepared as a hearty and filling meal for 19th-century Rome’s coal miners. When the U.S. Army arrived in Rome in 1944, the story goes that pasta carbonara also grew into a favorite among American soldiers, who later brought their love for it back home.

Table of Contents

How Guanciale Is Made

The cheeks and the jowl are trimmed from the pig’s head and, keeping the skin on, separated from the bones.

The result is a fresh cut of meat with a triangular or square shape that’s generously rubbed with sea salt and left to cure for several days.

After the initial cure, the guanciale is brushed to remove any excess salt and seasoned with additional spices, such as black pepper, red pepper, thyme, fennel, rosemary, and, in some cases, garlic.

Then, the guanciale is aged. The typical aging process takes 60 days. The longer the aging, the more flavorful the meat. Most butchers recommend that each cut loses 20% to 30% of its weight as a general rule of thumb.

Some artisanal salumi makers claim that guanciale can be aged for as long as 6 months, at which stage the most aromatics and flavors have been brought out from the meat.

The key takeaway is that guanciale is not

How to Select Guanciale

asimojet /Depositphotos The two traits to look for in guanciale

One of the reasons why I like shopping from brick-and-mortar stores is that you not only get to interact with the people behind the counter, but also select the piece of meat that appeals to you the most.

There are two things you should look for when selecting guanciale at the store:

The best pieces of guanciale are very fatty, but you still want to see a few strips of lean meat. Don’t get intimidated by the amount of fat; in most recipes, you will melt it into your skillet and use it as a substitute for cooking oil. At the end of the day, cooking oil is just as caloric as lard.

The fat should be white, maybe slightly pinkish in color. It’s okay to see some yellow on the fats surrounding the skin. But avoid buying a piece of guanciale if the fat seems overly yellowish to you. It’s probably gone rancid due to improper storage.

Customarily, guanciale is cured but not smoked. However, smoked guanciale, called guanciale affumicato, has been becoming more and more of a thing, both in Italy and abroad in recent years. When in doubt, go for the original (non-smoked).

Where to Buy Guanciale

Unless you live in Italy, buying guanciale can be least to say a challenge.

Grocery stores don’t carry it, and neither do supermarkets or hypermarkets. Most of the time, the best brick-and-mortar places to look for guanciale are an Italian butcher, market, or deli in town.

Alternatively, you can buy it online from a seller at Amazon or any other online retailer that carries it (happily, there’s plenty of them) no matter where you live. Look for vacuum-sealed guanciale and do check other customers’ reviews before buying from someone for the first time.

For your convenience, I went on a scavenger hunt on the Internet and found the top places that sell guanciale, according to people on Yelp, Reddit, and Chowhound, in the most-populated cities across the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, and Australia.

Here’s the list:

CountryCityPlaces
AustraliaSydneyDe Palma Salumi,
Harris Farm Markets,
Icnussa Fine Foods
AustraliaMelbourneLaikon Deli,
Meatsmith,
Mediterranean Wholesalers
CanadaTorontoNiagara Food Specialties,
Sanagan’s Meat Locker,
The Healthy Butcher
CanadaMontrealBerchicci,
Mayrand Food Depot,
Mini Italia
CanadaVancouverBosa Foods,
Cioffi’s Meat Market & Deli,
Oyama Sausage Co.
Great BritainLondonGastronomica,
I Camisa & Son,
Table @ Vallebona
United StatesNew YorkBuon’Italia,
Di Palo’s Fine Foods,
Pisano’s Butcher Shop
United StatesLos AngelesGuidi Marcello,
Mc Call’s Meat & Fish Co,
Sorrento Italian Market
United StatesChicagoAngelo Caputo’s Fresh Market,
Publican Quality Meats,
The Butcher & Larder
Where to find guanciale

Just in case, before you head to any of them for guanciale, be sure to give them a call to ask if they have it at the moment.

Would you like to have your city featured? Or do you want to share a few of your favorite spots with the rest of this post’s readers? Leave a comment below!

How to Store Guanciale

On average, guanciale has 2 ounces of fat per every 3.6-ounce serving (which, for readers who use the metric system, equates to 60.7 grams per 100-gram serving).

Lard tends to go rancid quicker at room temperature, which is why it’s a good idea to refrigerate paper-wrapped and vacuum-packaged guanciale—even if unopened—to maximize its shelf life.

Tightly covered in butcher paper or plastic wrap, a piece of guanciale will keep for up to 6 months in your fridge. Sliced guanciale has a significantly shorter shelf life and will typically go bad in 14 days.

As with other cured meats, guanciale will turn stiffer and stiffer with prolonged storage until it eventually becomes too hard to cut through and chew. So it’s best to eat it within a few months of buying it or store it in the freezer.

Frozen guanciale will be safe to eat indefinitely. However, its texture, aroma, and taste will slowly degrade after 18 to 24 months of freezing. To thaw guanciale, transfer it to your fridge the night before you plan to cook with it or eat it.

Substitutes for Guanciale

Though you won’t get the same herby aromatics and depth of flavor, you can usually substitute pancetta or bacon for guanciale.

Pancetta is bacon, Italian-style. Both come from the pig’s belly. However, pancetta is dry-cured with sea salt and black pepper, whereas bacon is smoked.

When substituting guanciale with pancetta or bacon, go for big and fatty pieces of meat instead of vacuum-sealed slices. You can always cut a large chunk of meat into slices when the occasion requires it, but thin slices can never replace thick cubes when a recipe calls for them.

Trust me; I’ve made the mistakes of trying to prepare carbonara with sliced pancetta and sliced bacon. It never works out.

Guanciale vs. Pancetta

Guanciale and pancetta are both staple Italian cured pork products, but they also have a fair share of differences: they’re not made from the same cuts of meat and are cured with different spices.

Guanciale is made from the pig’s cheek or jowl, whereas pancetta is made from its belly. This is the main reason why guanciale is generally fattier compared to pancetta.

Guanciale is cured in salt and a mix of Italian spices (black pepper, red pepper, thyme, fennel, rosemary, and occasionally garlic). In contrast, pancetta is cured in salt and black pepper.

Most chefs and foodies agree that guanciale is typically the more aromatic and flavorful cured meat of the two. However, since guanciale can be hard to find outside of Italy, it’s often substituted with its more common counterpart, pancetta.

Guanciale vs. Bacon

The first and most apparent difference between guanciale and bacon is their origin. Guanciale is Italian, whereas bacon is… Chinese! That’s right.

Contrary to what most people think, bacon didn’t originate in America. Its history dates back all the way to 1500 B.C. when the Chinese were dry-curing pork belly with salt.

Guanciale is made from cured pig’s cheek or jowl, whereas bacon is made from smoked pork loin or belly. This is also why guanciale is the fattier (which makes bacon the meatier) option of the two.

There’s one exception to the rule, and it’s called jowl bacon. Jowl bacon is as hard to find as guanciale, and only a small number of artisanal butcher shops make it. But, since it comes from the same cut of meat, it’s the closest substitute to guanciale you could possibly find on the market.

How Do You Cook Guanciale?

Guanciale is a staple ingredient in the local cuisines of Lazio and Emilia-Romagna, the two regions of Italy to which it’s native.

Italians cure and use it mainly for two reasons:

First, it’s a way to preserve an underappreciated cut of meat deliciously and for a long time. Storing meat is not a problem nowadays. But that wasn’t the case before refrigeration was invented and until fridges became affordable enough for every Italian household.

Second, guanciale not only adds flavor to any meal but also packs plenty of lard. When heated, that lard renders and drips down into your skillet—serving as a cheap, flavorful, and natural substitute for cooking oil.

All of this leads us to the correct way of cooking guanciale:

The best way to cook guanciale is to cut it into thick, 1/4-inch cubes, then slowly but surely brown it over low to medium heat until the fat melts into your skillet and the cubes turn tender and crisp.

Then, you can do whatever your heart desires with it. Take the skillet off the heat and toss the guanciale with spaghetti cooked al dente, pecorino cheese, and whisked egg for a hearty carbonara. Or add onions, hand-crushed canned tomatoes, and bucatini for pasta amatriciana.

The freedom’s all yours and there are probably a thousand recipes on the Internet. For best results, stick to this technique and use the guanciale as the “base” for the remainder of your dish.

Was this article helpful?

Share this

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *