Everything but the Oink: Headcheese

Note: This is not a food blog.  Nor is this a photography blog.  What follows is headcheese as I made it, with some on-the-fly camera photography.  If you want to see artfully done photos of making headcheese, I’m sure you can find them elsewhere.  (Here is a good source.)

Also note: This post may contain images deemed “objectionable” by some.  Headcheese, after all, is made from a head.

Headcheese is an unfortunately misnamed product that is essentially a terrine made from the meat (and skin and fat) from the head of an animal, usually a pig or, to a lesser extent, a sheep.  It has everything to do with “head” and nothing to do with “cheese.”  My intent here is not to argue for the use of the whole animal (though that is itself a right aim) or to delve into the history and variations of headcheese (though that would certainly be interesting), but to give a fairly quick and dirty demonstration of headcheese as I made it.  (If you want more information on headcheese in general, Wikipedia, as usual, has a good overview.)

Two weeks ago we took three hogs into a local butcher, and as I was giving cutting instructions to the butcher I noticed that the cut sheet had the options to keep the head whole (rather than boning it out for cheeks/jowls, as we did with one of the hogs).  I had recently watched a three-part video series (On The Anatomy of Thrift) that included making headcheese, and I wanted to give it a try, so when I picked up the fresh meat from the butcher a week later it included one whole head.

I won’t bother giving an exact recipe here.  For one, there are many variations, and I have no knowledge to claim one is better than any other.  But more importantly, in the kitchen I tend to measure more with my eyeballs than with teaspoons, so I don’t have an exact recipe.  “A handful of salt, a good bit of pepper, some bay leaves…” wouldn’t be too terribly helpful.  But my process was influenced in equal parts by the video series linked above (the “Harvest Day” episode specifically) and the books Odd Bits and The River Cottage Meat Book (that version is repeated in The River Cottage Cookbook).

Typically when hogs are processed they are scalded and the hair scraped off, while ruminants are skinned.  Unfortunately our butcher, being a fairly small-scale affair, skins the hogs too.  In a headcheese the skin will help provide gelatin to allow it to ‘set,’ which is essential to the product.  But this one seemed to work just fine without it.

Step one: put the cleaned head in a large-ish container.

Put the cleaned head in a large-ish container.

Step two: add brine.

Add brine.

The brine can be as simple or complex as you want.  The simple version is salt dissolved in water.  The complex version is salt dissolved in water, with just about anything else.  Seems that headcheese recipes that use a simple brine will make up for it by adding other herbs and spices to the cooking liquid, while recipes with complex brines won’t.  I adapted the suggested brine from the Odd Bits book, omitting things I didn’t have and generally adding what seemed reasonable.  Basically this was kosher salt and brown sugar dissolved in boiling water, to which was added crushed black peppercorns, eastern red cedar berries (the recipe called for juniper berries, but the cedar–a relative of juniper–made a nice and local substitution), crushed garlic, and a few bay leaves.

Make sure the head remains submerged in the liquid (I set a glass Pyrex container on top and filled it with water) and refrigerate for a few days.  When it was time to cook I rinsed the head in cold tap water, stuck it in a large pot, and covered with cold water, then added some chopped up carrots, celery, and a small head of garlic.  Then turned the head on medium-lowish and waited.  Took three to four hours until the meat was falling off the bone, at which point I removed the head to a cutting board to cool, strained the cooking liquid, and commenced boiling the cooking liquid down.

Simmer in a large stockpot.

Simmer in a large stockpot.

Once the head was cool enough to handle I began picking and cutting the meat off the bone until it was pretty well cleaned, then chopped the meat (and the simmered carrots) into smallish chunks.  Once the liquid was sufficiently reduced (this took a while) all that remained was assembly.  There are special terrine dishes to be found that are used for this very purpose, but a loaf pan seems to work just as well.

Meat ready to be picked off the bone.

Meat ready to be picked off the bone.

Picked & chopped.

Picked & chopped.

Pack it into a loaf pan or terrine dish.

Pack it into a loaf pan or terrine dish, then cover with the reduced cooking liquid and refrigerate.

Ready to turn out.

Ready to turn out.

The finished product.

The finished product.

I was pleasantly surprised with how it came out.  Two things I would change: (1) pack the chopped meat less tightly into the loaf pan, to allow the liquid to better work its way through rather than just sitting on top; (2) cook a little longer to allow the meat and fat to break down a little more.  But the flavor was better than expected.  It’s certainly porky, and really quite intensely flavored–I see now why headcheese is usually eaten with pickles and mustard and such, to cut through the intense flavor of the meat.

Headcheese is now on my radar.  It takes a while to make, but it’s really quite easy and most of the time is hands-off anyway.  I think blood sausage would make a fine next foray.