For the life of me, I haven’t been able to figure out why Fat back and Hog Jowls haven’t taken off in popularity in the last few years. With the onset of “Bacon Mania” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacon_mania) and the resurgence of “discarded bits” and “offal-centric” cuisine, one would think that it’s a match made in porky heaven.
Lets start of with the basics. Unbeknownst to most people “bacon” can refer to different cuts of pork in different parts of the world. Essentially, the only thing that binds them together is the fact that the majority of things called bacon have been smoked and cured. Bacon, as we know it in the U.S. is typically made from smoked and cured pork belly. But quite a bit of other “bacons” are readily available here in the states.
Example 1: Fatback.
Fatback is smoked and cured adipose tissue (subcutaneous fat) from the back of the pig. As it’s name suggests it is mostly fat. Occasionally however, it can include some rind (skin) or meat (back bacon) in it as well.
Fatback is most commonly used as a flavor enhancer (drop it in a pot of peas, collards, etc.) But, I do know people that pan fry it and eat it like belly bacon. (If there’s rind attached, be prepared for it to be quite chewy.)
To be honest, I’m not a fan of the pan-fry fatback method. It produces a ton of grease, is extremely salty to the taste, and can burn quite quickly. I think fatback really shines as a “toss in the pot” ingredient. All that goodness that cooks out of the fat marrys well with something with a high starch content like a big boiler of dry butter beans. The beans will soak up that cooked-off grease and salt and give the beans a nice salty, smoky, pork flavor.
I flip flop my opinions for hog jowls. I think “toss in the pot” with them is a big waste. Here’s why:
Hog jowl is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the smoked cheeks of the pig. It’s often overlooked because most people are turned off at the thought of eating the cheeks of an animal. (I usually laugh at people like this every time they eat a hot dog or a chicken nugget. I’ll let you Google that and find out why.) I think a lot of it has to do with the mental picture of someone slicing a hunk off of the head of an animal and making you eat it. Most Americans don’t want to know where their meat comes from, and don’t like to think about the fact that the meat they eat used to be part of an animal. But at some point, “animal” turns to “meat” and winds up on a grocery store shelf in a nice vacuum sealed package. Then we’re okay with it.
So, just for those squeamish people, here’s a picture of uncooked hog jowl.
Holy crap! It looks like bacon! Amazing! It’s not a horror show after all!
Now that the hard part is over, lets get down to business.
I’ll just come out and say it. Hog jowls make the best damned bacon you’ve ever tasted. It’s thick, highly smoked, and moderately salty. The outside is crunchy, the inside is chewy and there’s just enough fat to make it have that luscious bacon flavor that drives people nuts.
I cook it just like I cook my belly bacon. In the oven.
Single layer it on a sheet pan, pop it in a 400 degree oven, and turn it every 10 minutes until done. It’s magical. (Some folks brush a little oil on the top of the jowl before putting it in the oven the first time. I’ve never tried it. It’s a little bit of “gilding the lily” for me. But they swear it helps the “outside crunchy/inside soft” texture.)
After it’s done, this is what you get:
Looks awesome, right? It is. I’ve had that exact same meal at Lambert’s Cafe in Foley Alabama. It was bacon perfection.
Boiling this stuff absolutely kills it’s potential. I don’t boil hog jowl for the same reason that I don’t boil belly bacon. If you boil it, you’re ruining a great piece of meat. If you just want to add flavor to a boil, use fatback. You’ll get a lot more flavor “boiled out” and you won’t ruin the crunchy-chewy goodness that is jowl meat.
On a parting note, both fatback and hog jowl are a great way to keep moisture in roasted poultry or game birds. Spread slices of either across the top of the bird before slow roasting, and the fat will baste the bird as they both cook.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our look at a couple of oft neglected southern favorites.
Till we meet again.