When I heard that suckling pigs were coming into the kitchen, I squealed with joy.
I knew that the heads would be leftover since they wouldn't give up the amount of meat a large pig would for our typical headcheese. I begged the butcher to save the heads for me, so I could save the little piggies from the fate of the stockpot that awaited them.
It's not that I'm morbid or have some fascination with eating baby animals. The way I see it, I enjoy animals on two levels: platonically, as in those I might keep as a pet, and culinarily, as in those I would like to eat.
Part of appreciating animals to me is cooking with offal/organ meats. There is more to dining than skinless, all white meat chicken, much more. But of all the things you can make that are offal related, headcheese is one of the great triumphs, as well as something that will turn the stomach of your average American.
It's an example of the great food inspired from frugality, where nothing goes to waste. There is beauty too in the transformation the meat undergoes, the act of turning a head into a showstopping terrine to me is alchemy, something magical. When it's made correctly too it's a work of art, and ends up looking like a mosaic, or a stained glass window.
There are a couple things to know about headcheese well. First you need a pork head, preferably sawed in half by a butcher so you can get at all the tidbits and secret chambers of the head easily.
You also need the tongue, some pork trotters, and a little pink salt if you want to keep it brightly colored, which is optional, but pretty. Other than that there isn't really much to it except the 3 days it will take to cook. The head must be brined, then braised, then the meat picked and pressed into a loaf-type pan.
Last but not least, you will need a pair of balls. You will get sticky, greasy, and messy. While braising the head, you had better tell the kids to go outside, and your spouse will thank you for opening a window.
You'll be knuckle deep in pig face, peeling meat from a skull like a cave person. But, if you do it well, you will have some serious bragging rights among your friends, and a delicious snack to boot.
In the end, you'll have reclaimed a piece of something likely no one in your family remembers how to do. Best of all, the next time you meet someone that annoyingly waxes poetic about foie gras and truffles you can tell them where to put'em, because you will be the real "foodie".
Classic Pork Headcheese
- 1 gallon water
- 1 cup salt
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 4 oz (10tsp) pink salt (prague powder, not Himalayan pink salt)
- 1 pig's head halved, brains removed and saved for another purpose (like ravioli)
- 1 pig's tongue
- 1 pork trotter, halved (optional) This will give the stock extra gelatin, but is optional.
- 2 cups each chopped carrots leeks, and celery
- 1 garlic bulb halved
- 1 gallon water
- 3 cups dry white wine
- For the bouquet garni
- 10 sprigs of thyme
- 1 bunch of parsley
- 3 fresh bay leaves
- 10 black peppercorns
- 5 cloves
- 1 whole nutmeg
- 5 whole allspice
- 1 tablespoon yellow mustard seed
- Bring the ingredients for the brine to a boil, then allow it to cool. Place the halved head, tongue, and trotter if using In a large container (consider a Rubbermaid tub or something similar) and cover with the brine, making sure they're completely covered. If you don't have a large fridge, consider doing this in the winter so you can keep it cold outside--the salt will prevent it from freezing.
- After 24 hours, remove the head and tongue from the brine and put into a large stock pot with the bouquet and remaining headcheese ingredients. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then cook covered for 3-4 hours, or until the jaw wiggles easily from the skull. Using tongs or a large skimming tool like a metal strainer, remove the pork and allow to cool just enough so that you can handle it.
Picking the meat from the head
- Peel and diced the tongue into ½ in cubes.
- Working carefully to avoid bone fragments, remove the meat from the head and shanks discarding connective tissue, skin, fat, bone, cartilage, or anything that doesn't look delicious or feels like it would be awkward in your mouth--you want meat, and only the meat. Chop the meat roughly, mix with the tongue, and reserve in a covered container. Don't miss the ocular meat behind the eyes as it's some of the best.
Reduce the liquid
- While you're picking the meat from the head, strain the braising liquid, then return it to a simmer on the stove in a wide pot. Reduce the liquid by half.
- Test the gel of the braising liquid by spooning some onto a plate and refrigerating it. The liquid should gel easily when it cools. If it doesn't, reduce the liquid in ¼ increments, continuing to test until it gels and sets nicely. Contrary to popular opinion, it is possible to over-reduce the braising liquid, which will give your headcheese the texture of a super ball. It should be solid, and able to be cut with a knife, but not so hard that it's rock-like, or rubbery. It should be pleasant tasting.
Chill and Form
- Line a terrine mold or bread pan with plastic wrap so that there is enough plastic hanging over the edges to cover the terrine completely when the pan is filled. Mix the diced, braised meat in a bowl, then pack it into the pan or mold. Pour the reserved braising liquid over the top, then wait for it to settle completely, tap the pan on a cutting board or another hard surface to help the liquid distribute throughout the terrine.
- Afterwords, fold the plastic back over the mold, then cut a piece of cardboard to fit on the pan. Weight the terrine over night with a heavy object, making sure the weight it evenly distributed, and placing the entire pan on a cookie sheet in order to catch any drips of gelatinized stock.
Serving and Unmolding
- The next day, un-mold the headcheese remove the plastic, and slice ½ in thick with a long, sharp knife to serve. The headcheese will keep for a week.
Seriously impressive. Thanks for the detailed pictures all the way through as it helps so much in understanding the process. There is one place here in Helsinki that serves roasted pig's for 2, table side, but this is the first time I've seen evidence of anyone making headcheese. I'm going to try this - thank you!
Thanks Ann, glad you liked it.
The curing process is finished. Into the pot goes the head, trotters and tounge. By tonight I hope have a loaf in the fridge. Exciting first attempt. Thanks again for sharing. Jeff
Can you freeze the head cheese for later?
I have two full-sized hog heads in the fridge. I really want to use this recipe but I do have a couple of questions. Is pink salt the same as Prague Powder #1? What was the weight of the head that the recipe is based on? The ones I have are in excess of 15# each. Thank you for your help. I look forward to sharing this with friends.
Hi Tom, the weight of your head doesn't matter. What you need to do, is find out how much liquid you need to cover the heads. Once you have a very large pot or whatever to brine them in, scale this recipe to the amount of liquid you need to cover your heads. Also, if you have a reciprocating saw or a sawsall, cut those heads in half, it's a heck of a lot easier. And yes, pink salt is prague powder, definitely not Himalayan salt, and I adjusted that.
This will be my third year using this recipe. I gift most of it and it gets lots of praise. I also found that my local Mexican butcher shop stocks the heads and will cut them for me so I'm not wearing myself out with my bone saw. I buy extra tongues and ears to add to the pot. Thank you for the great recipe.
Just bought a head to attempt to make this old family favorite. Question...do you boil the whole thing? Eyes, skin and all? What to you discard before brining, and cooking?
Yes, you simmer the whole head. Read the recipe carefully. You will be discarding all skin, bones, cartilage, eye balls, etc.
Thank you! I read another recipe where they left the eyeballs in.. I discarded that one and went with yours instead because I liked the sound of all your ingredients...plus, your a chef 😊 head is now ready to come out of the pot and will be taking the meat out soon 😊 thank you so much!
Thanks for posting this. Quick question why is the pink salt listed in oz AND tsp? Is it 4 oz dry weight plus 10 tsp volume? "4 oz 10tsp pink salt"
Hey Duke, happy to clarify that. So, when you see two different units of measurement for the same ingredient, it's meant to clarify the amount for people that may prefer weight over volume (cups vs oz) or vice versa. With somethings this isn't an issue, but with pink salt especially, I add it both to make it approachable to people who don't have a kitchen scale, and for safety, since you want to use the exact amount called for in a recipe and not more. I added some parenthesis so that is more clear. Sometimes the interface on the site removes certain formatting from Word. Hope that helps, and let me know if you have any other questions. Headcheese is one of the greatest charcuterie methods to learn.
Burton P Johnson
I have access to pig head and I can't wait to make this. Does the pig head need to be skinned before the brine and braise?
Thanks! Burt in NC
Hey Burt, this recipe is an undertaking, but once you make it once you'll be able to make it with your eyes closed and you'll understand how it can be made with many different cuts of meat-not just head. Gelatin and aspic terrines are the easiest of all terrines to make, and the most forgiving since they can be re-melted if they don't set properly. As for skinning, no, ideally the head has been scalded to remove the hair, but has the skin on it-this is important as skin contains tons of collagen that will help you get a great, firm set on the finished product. I need to make a video of this, come to think of it. If you have any questions during the process please reach out-answering questions is part of my job.