FoodGetting to know guanciale: The heart of Italian cuisine

Getting to know guanciale: The heart of Italian cuisine

Images source: © Getty Images | Visibil-e

3:26 PM EDT, July 7, 2024

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

The name of this specialty comes from the word "guancia," which means "cheek," as it was initially made from pork cheeks. Today, the 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, when curing meat was a common practice. This preservation method gave the meat an attractive color, taste, and smell, significantly extending its shelf life.

Over time, guanciale production became a specialty of butchers from central Italy, mainly in the regions of Umbria and Lazio. The technique for producing this delicacy has remained largely unchanged. The meat (usually from selected pig breeds) is rubbed with coarse salt, ground pepper, and other spices (depending on the region of Italy, this can include garlic, peperoncino, thyme, or red pepper) and then left to mature in cool cellars for a minimum of 30 days.

After this 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 flavor and an exceptional, delicate, and juicy texture, which works well in many Italian dishes. Guanciale can also be successfully used in other cuisines, 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 reasonably high-calorie product—100 grams provide nearly 650 kcal. Its main ingredient is saturated fats. For years, these fats have been considered a significant factor in raising levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol, which can lead to coronary artery narrowing and increase 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 favorable ratio between unsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The latter constitutes merely 5-10 percent of pork fat, significantly less than 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 cardiovascular 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 specialty—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 frittata—a baked dish with potatoes. Guanciale enhances the flavor of fish and seafood dishes (e.g., shrimp). A delicious snack can be made by sautéing sliced bacon with brussels sprouts.

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