In Which, The Food Adventurer Learns How To Butcher A Pig & Makes Head Cheese: Part II


It makes sense to be posting this recipe on Christmas Eve, since many northern and eastern european cultures include head cheese as part of their Christmas feast. Laid out amongst Lingonberry sauce, ham, pickled herring, strong mustard and loaves of bread, the salty, savory taste of head cheese is common this time of year throughout Sweden, Denmark, and the Balkan nations.

However, the making of head cheese or, in swedish, sylte is no small undertaking. How I came across a Pig's head is explained in great detail in my previous post. This is what came of that pig's head once it landed on the kitchen table.

Needless to say, I was both excited and nervous about this offal undertaking. For those of you who might not know, "offal" describes all the parts of the pig that are typical discarded or rarely used. The liver, stomach, feet, head, ears, intestines, or even kidneys are all part of the offal pantheon. In recent years, however, offal has made a huge comeback in the food scene with champions like Chef Chris Consentino leading the way. The recent interest in charcuterie, thanks to Charcutapalooza and Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, has also helped to promote an interest in "the other meats." So when confronted with this task, I actually had somewhere to turn to via the internet.

After putting a shout out to folks across my social media channels (thanks to Michael Ruhlman, Smoke Cure Pickle, Lenn Thompson, and Saint Tigerlily) and doing some research on my own, I soon found my way into the kitchen, armed and ready to take on this beast of a challenge (pun intended). The basic concept for making head cheese is fairly simple. Boil a pig's head for a long time to make a broth, then reduce the broth to concentrate the natural gelatin in the broth, meanwhile pick the head for meat (i.e. cheeks, jowls, neck, etc.), add spices and fresh herbs to meat, then pour broth over the meat, let cool till the natural gelatin sets. Easy enough...right?

The first task was to prep the head for boiling. Unfortunately since the pig's head was given to me from a local farmer, the shaving of the pig was not simple. The head was covered in a dense forest of coarse hair that quickly dulled the cheap disposable razors I'd purchased for the project. Changing my strategy, I employed an old Mach 3 razor, a pair of scissors, and a trusty Norelco beard trimmer to the task and after about 2.5 hours of clipping, scrapping, and trimming, the head was clean and smooth.

By the time this step was finished, it was close to 11 in the evening and I was having Lord Of The Flies style hallucinations after staring at the pig's face for so long. "No, Kevin Bacon, I won't let you go for a walk. You MUST go in the pot." So I plugged my ears and plopped the head into a brine of about 3 gallons of water, 3 cups of salt, and 1.5 cups of sugar, and retired for the night.

The next day, I pulled the head out of the brine on my lunch break after around 13 hours of soaking. I patted it dry, and left it in the fridge till I came home from work. When I returned, I pulled the head out and filled the LARGEST pot I have ever used in my life (borrowed from the farmers) with water, bay leaves, cloves, whole black pepper, garlic and a bouquet garni of thyme, rosemary, and majoram, and set the head  to simmer.....for 5 hours.

Bouquet Garni

In the pot, it goes...

...After 2 Hours

...After 3.5 Hours

...After 5 Hours
So after 5 hours of slow simmering, the pig head emerged cooked. I set it in the fridge to cool and began the process of reducing the remaining broth to intensify the natural gelatin. Apparently, if not reduced enough, say less than 2.5 hours, the gelatin will not set. Now I've read several articles that mention that you can test the broth in the fridge, but I'm still not sure how this works. So I just winged it.

The meatless skull
As the broth simmered down, I pulled the "potted head" from the fridge and dove into dissecting the meat from skin and fat. I'm not going to say that this was completely pleasant, but it wasn't as difficult as I'd imagined. The meat is clearly meat and although it takes time I ended up with a good bowl's worth. The cheeks, neck, and tongue are the meatiest parts of the head, but all throughout little bits of good meat can be found. The tongue takes a bit of effort and expertise to dislodge and then to peel its waxy coating off, but once finished it can be chopped up into bit size pieces. I ended up chopping all the meat and then adding allspice, salt, pepper, parsley, and a bit of nutmeg. 

Once this portion was finished, I let the broth simmer a bit more and then strained it through a series of strainers. I then let it cool. Once it had cooled, I lined a pyrex loaf pan with saran wrap, placed the meat into the pan, poured the broth over the meat, and placed it in the fridge. I had some broth left over, so I put it in a mason jar and stored that in the fridge as well. The whole process had taken me about 9.5 hours. It felt like an epic marathon of cooking, especially since I didn't go to bed till around 2am. But afterwards, sitting on the couch with a bourbon in hand, I felt fully and utterly accomplished. 

The next morning, I couldn't help myself to see if the broth had set into gelatin and sure enough, IT DID! I had a beautiful terrine studded with succulent pork. Wanting another opinion on my creation, I took some to a French friend of mine, who in a very french way replied, "It's not bad." He suggested melting it back down, skimming a bit more of the fat off, and adding more parsley, salt, and pepper. I took his advice and it really improved it's flavor. 

The flavor was really quite nice and reminiscent of a savory Christmas dish. The broth tasted of the herbs (although a bit overpowered by the majoram, which wasn't too bad) and the meat tasted very similar to dark turkey meat, tender and juicy. The added parsley gave the combination a fresh, light flavor that helped to offset the savoriness of the broth. Paired with a nice beer, some crackers and mustard, it was a delectable appetizer. 

Would I do it again?'s certainly not an every day process. But one things for sure, I learned some invaluable lessons about the importance of valuing where my meat comes from, how it is made, and using it well. For the time, appreciation, and respect that we give to the food we cook is ultimately a sign of appreciation for the farmers and animals from whom it has come. It is this bond that links us, and it is this bond that nourishes us.

Local Long Island Head Cheese
Adapted from Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman

For the brine:
- 1 pig’s head, including tongue
- 2 gallons of brine (1 cup Kosher salt and 1/2 cup sugar per gallon of water)

For the stock:
- 2 cups dry white wine
- 1 bouquet garni (I used thyme, rosemary, and majoram)
- 6 garlic cloves
- 10 black peppercorns
- 8 bay leaves
- 6 cloves

For the terrine:
- kosher salt
- black pepper
- 1.5 cups of parsley
- other flavorings (nutmeg and/or allspice)

Brine all the meat overnight. Drain and rinse the meat. Add the meat and stock ingredients to a 20 quart stockpot and add water to cover as much as possible. Bring everything to a boil and maintain a very slow simmer for 3-4 hours, skimming fat throughout, until the stock is very dark.

Remove the meat and let it cool. Bring the remaining stock to a rolling boil until it reduces in volume by 1/3, about 2.5 more hours. Meanwhile, pick off the edible meat from the tongues, head, and trotters. The tongues must be peeled. Work around the bones and skin, judiciously selecting the meat and a little of the fat. The meat should fill one terrine, lined with plastic wrap, with some leftovers.

Mix the meat with the parsley or other flavorings. Ladle the reduced stock over the meat to fill the terrine, then salt the entire thing to taste.

Cover and refrigerate the head cheese overnight or until set. The terrine should be firm all around. Invert onto a serving plate, remove the plastic wrap, and serve with mustard and a baguette or on crostinis and pickles.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate your efforts and
    I will be waiting for your further post thank you once

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