Head cheese is not the most appetizing name for a food, but if you can get past the name, hog's head cheese is a dish you should definitely know about. Using every bit of an animal is standard practice in a lot of places; the fancy name is nose-to-tail, but most folks just know it as a way to not waste anything. Meat is expensive, so finding a way to create tasty meals out of what might be considered the offal or unsavory bits is how to stretch a budget.
What is Hog Head Cheese?
Here in the United States, it's known as a Southern thing, but you can find a version of hog's head cheese pretty much anywhere in the world you find pigs. The history of the dish goes back well before any published recipe, but we do know that head cheese became popular in the 1700s. The name of the food seems a little misleading because hog's head cheese isn't actually a dairy-based product. Instead, it refers to how the dish is made.
How Do You Make Hog's Head Cheese?
In Europe, terrines (or layers of meat or fish shaped into a loaf pan) were catching on. The meat mixture, usually with some kind of aspic, was pressed and chilled until it became solid. The process of pressing ingredients into a solid shape was known as "cheesing." Gastro Obscura found a 1732 British cookbook by Charles Carter; The Compleat City and Country Cook includes a recipe for a "Hog's Head Cheese Fashion."
While today you might see head cheese in artisanal butcher shops and five-star restaurants, historically, especially in the American South, head cheese was a way to make do. In southern Louisiana, where it's also known as a souse, they add vinegar and hot sauce.
Hog's head cheese is made by boiling a pig head in enough water, minus the brain and eyes, in a giant stockpot. A few pig's feet are added for the natural gelatin, along with any seasonings you like. For example, a German version of head cheese generally includes pickles and vinegar, while a French head cheese might include bay leaves, black pepper, and vegetables like carrot, onion and celery.
The meaty dish is often called brawn in Europe, where you'll find it served as an appetizer or as cold cuts for sandwiches. It's usually served cold or at room temperature, and here in the U.S., you'll find it served on crackers or as a sandwich filling (po'boys, if you're in Cajun country).
And if you really can't stand the idea of eating a pig's head, you can find head cheese in some delis that are simply pork meat (snout not included).
This post was originally published on July 15, 2019.