FoodItaly's secret ingredient: Unlocking the flavour of guanciale

Italy's secret ingredient: Unlocking the flavour of guanciale

Images source: © Getty Images | Visibil-e

7 July 2024 18:26

Without it, Italians cannot imagine their famous pasta classics: carbonara or amatriciana. It has a unique taste and aroma and a delicate, buttery consistency, enriching various dishes by providing a potent dose of umami. Let's get to know guanciale better.

The name of this speciality comes from the word "guancia," meaning "cheek," as it was initially made from pork cheeks. Today, jowl – the fat-muscle part of the pig's cheek and neck known for its exceptional flexibility and firmness – is increasingly used.

The history of guanciale dates back to ancient times and the Roman Empire, whose inhabitants commonly practised curing meat, a preservation method that gave it an attractive colour, taste, and smell and significantly extended its durability.

Over time, the production of guanciale became a speciality of butchers from central Italy, mainly the regions of Umbria and Lazio. The technique of producing this delicacy has remained essentially unchanged. The meat (usually from selected pig breeds) is rubbed with coarse salt, ground pepper, and other spices (depending on the region of Italy, it can be garlic, peperoncino, thyme, red pepper), and then left to mature in cool cellars for a minimum of one month.

After such treatment, the product resembles our local bacon, showing "marbled" strips of pink meat interspersed with fat when cut. However, it is distinguished by an intense, deep flavour and an exceptional, delicate, and juicy texture, which works well in many Italian dishes. Guanciale can also be successfully used in British cuisine, for example, as an addition to scrambled eggs or baked beans. It can even enhance a simple sandwich.

Guanciale – nutritional values

Undoubtedly, guanciale is a fairly high-calorie product – 100 grams provides nearly 650 kcal. Its main ingredient is saturated fats. For years, they have been considered a significant factor in raising levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol, whose excess leads to coronary artery narrowing, consequently increasing the risk of heart attacks or strokes. Recently, however, many scientific studies have shown that it's hard to find a direct relationship between consuming saturated fats and the development of cardiovascular diseases. Of course, it’s still best not to overdo their consumption.

At the same time, it's worth remembering that saturated fatty acids are the body's main energy source. They are involved in building cell membranes, immune responses, and the transport and absorption of vitamins (A, D, E, K).

Guanciale© Getty Images | PJjaruwan

The advantage of guanciale (like our local lard or bacon) is the favourable ratio between unsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The latter constitute merely 5-10 per cent of pork fat, significantly less than in seemingly very healthy vegetable oils, such as sunflower oil. Excessive consumption of omega-6 acids, combined with a deficit of omega-3 acids, promotes breast cancer development in postmenopausal women and may also disturb the cardiovascular system and immune system functions, deregulate hormonal balance, or exacerbate inflammation.

Italian bacon contains many valuable unsaturated fatty acids, especially oleic acid (which lowers blood pressure) and palmitoleic acid (which regulates hormone secretion).

How to use guanciale

Guanciale is tasty and very aromatic. It can be eaten raw, sliced very thinly, or slightly warmed and served, for example, on crunchy toasts.

Italians cannot imagine traditional spaghetti carbonara without this speciality – a pasta dish with a yolk-based sauce, crispy bacon, Pecorino Romano cheese, and freshly ground black pepper. Guanciale is also added to pasta all’Amatriciana – a simple dish with pasta, San Marzano tomatoes, red pepper flakes, and Pecorino Romano cheese.

The product is excellent on pizza (especially with mushrooms), in risotto, or in a frittata—a baked dish with potatoes. Guanciale enhances the flavour of fish and seafood dishes (e.g., shrimp). A delicious snack can be obtained by sautéing sliced bacon with Brussels sprouts.

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