Whole Hog Butchering: Head Cheese

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Last week we talked about whole hog butchering.¬†The whole idea of whole animal butchery is using every part of the animal that you can and letting virtually nothing go to waste. The only part of our pig that we didn’t use was the skin (we skinned it instead of scalding it) and hooves. There are things you can do with the skin and hooves, namely cracklin’s and… I don’t know, pickled pig feet? For this first time around we didn’t use them. But something we were very excited about using was the head for head cheese and pork stock. Oh buddy! It’s a twofer! Head cheese is awesome¬†and it often gets a bad rap because it’s a weird name. Much like the very popular AMC Gremlin or Hoobastank. We’ll talk about the name in a second. I know there’s something called “head cheese loaf” you can get in the grocery store but let me assure you, that stuff is weird. Real head cheese is a delicious, rich mixture of fat and muscle with endless spice options. So let’s get on this salty meaty train and learn how to make authentic head cheese at home.

I’ll admit it, head cheese is a real weird name and can be off putting if you don’t know what it is. If you have a house full of unadventerous eaters, I recommend calling it something else before you serve it. Maybe… “pork loaf” or “face sausage” or “just shut up and eat it.” Head cheese has nothing to do with dairy cheese and I imagine the name came from the process of making dairy cheese. In cheesemaking, you separate the curds from whey, form the curds, flavor it, chill it and boom! Cheese. With head cheese you’re boiling the head with some scrap fat or trim, separating out the good stuff like the meat and fat, flavoring it, pressing it into a shape, chill it and boom! Head cheese. But I could be wrong. That makes the most sense to us, though. But regardless, head cheese isn’t a scary food. The process of making it is a little scary (basically a pig head stew) but the end result is a delightful terrine sure to knock your sockens off.

As I said before, when we slaughtered our pig, we chose to skin it rather than scald it. It really goes by much faster and if you’re not planning on making cracklin’s or something very specific with the skin then there’s really no great use to keep the skin for home use. Maybe dog treats if you have a whole herd of sled dogs, a wolf dog or something; because otherwise you’ll have a year’s supply of dog treats. So when we separated the head, it still had it’s skin on. We set up a large (20 gallon) stockpot on a propane burner and got it up to about 145 degrees, which is the perfect scalding temperature. We set the whole pig head in the pot, fully submerged for about 5 minutes and pulled it out and started scraping off the skin and hair with a sharp knife, just like we were giving him a shave. It can be time consuming since you have to go around the ears, mouth, eyes, etc. If it’s not coming off easily, then you can re-dunk him for another few minutes. But the hair should pull out easily and if you go against the grain of the skin, it will be really easy. After he was done with his fancy straight razor shave and hot towel treatment, into the fridge he went.

Scalded and ready to go!
Scalded, chilled and ready to go!

The following week when John and Jon from Bolyard’s came out, we immediately set up the same stock pot and propane burner before we even started butchering. Making head cheese is about a 4 hour long process. They were nice enough to bring 3 gallons of pork stock from the shop and we added about 3 gallons of water, or enough to submerge the head. Then, we cranked up that burner and let it simmer the whole day. While they were butchering, they would toss scraps of fat and meat into the pot.

When we dropped the head into the pot, we cut off the ears since they are useless for head cheese. The dogs really appreciated the fresh pig ear treats.
When we dropped the head into the pot, we cut off the ears since they are useless for head cheese. The dogs really appreciated the fresh pig ear treats.

Later in the day, after we ate fresh cut pork steaks, went swimming and what have you, we went back to the stock pot to check on the head cheese. It was either four or five hours on the dot. John pulled the head out of the stock pot (but left the stock pot simmering with everything else in there). Then he began pulling all of the delicious muscle (namely the cheek and jowl), tissue, fat and even tongue off of the face. Bear with me, guys. There are no brains or eyeballs in head cheese, for those of you that are wondering. Just delicious face parts. So John kept pulling this thing apart and shredding it into a bowl.

After pulling off the meat and goodies from the bone, this is what you have! Time to start seasoning.
After pulling off the meat and goodies from the bone, this is what you have! Time to start seasoning.

Then came time for the spices and creativity. Salt and pepper are staples and dill is a popular addition. But we used some of my mother-in-law’s Hungarian paprika which ended up being an excellent idea. On two of the rolls we added pickled pepperoncinis, which was David Drake’s brilliant idea. The pork was hot but you eat it cold so you really want to over season it. Because some sort of science happens that when the head cheese cools, the fat absorbs a lot of the spices. So when you are taste testing and the mixture tastes way to salty or dilly or paprika-y, then add a little more and it’s probably ok.

I didn’t know this, but John is some sort of magician that manifested itself in the form of “head cheese rolling.” He laid out two pieces of cellophane, slightly overlapping each other. Then, he put a healthy dollop of the pork/spice mixture along the seam, folded one long end over the pork mixture and started forming it into a long tube-like shape. Then he rolled the whole cellophane until it was in one big tube. This is when magic happened. As he would roll the “pork tube” toward himself, he would slightly push in with his thumb and forefinger on either side of the tube. This really formed the shape of the head cheese log and made the ends nice and tight. When it was completely rolled and formed, he tied off each end of the cellophane. The now formed head cheese was then wrapped into aluminum foil which would help retain the shape while it was chillin’ in the fridge.

Placing the mixture on the plastic wrap
Placing the mixture on the plastic wrap
Folding the plastic wrap around the meat and pulling it tight to form a strong seal.
Folding the plastic wrap around the meat and pulling it tight to form a strong seal.
Gathering the pork mixture in the center to start forming the log-o-meat
Gathering the pork mixture in the center to start forming the log-o-meat
After rolling the tube and slightly adding pressure on the ends, you have a formed log. Just tie off the ends and wrap with aluminum foil.
After rolling the tube and slightly adding pressure on the ends, you have a formed log. Just tie off the ends and wrap with aluminum foil.

We ended up with four large tubes of head cheese, about a pound or so each. Two were paprika only and the other two were paprika and pepperoncini. We let it cool for two days in the fridge before tearing one open and eating it on top of some matzoh for dinner. So very wrong and hypocritical once you think about it… but that’s what we did. And it was amazing. The perfect balance of meat and fat and flavor. We ended up putting the other three in individual vacuum seal bags and putting it in our freezer for later.

We jumped on that salty meaty head cheese train like a straight up hobo.
I would write an entire sonnet dedicated to this head cheese.

But let’s get back to the stockpot. We let the pot simmer full of the liquid/fat until it was dark and the liquid had reduced by half. Then we took it off the burner and poured it through a colander into a large food grade container. You’ll get some small bones, fat chunks, etc floating around in the pot so the straining is a really important step. The food grade bucket was covered and left to sit in the fridge for a day until it cooled. Once it was completely chilled the next night we took it out to find a nice, thick layer of fat on top. We tossed out the fat and filled up freezer bags full of the thick, gelatiny pork stock and put them in the freezer for later use. Chilling the stock is the way to go because you can skim off that fat and leave it out of your stock.

In one day we were able to get, not only an entire pig butchered, but also about 4-5 lbs of head cheese and about 4-5 gallons of pork stock. Not too shabby! Making head cheese and stock really helped us extend the yield of our whole pig without a whole lot of added work. We jumped on that salty meaty head cheese train like a straight up hobo.


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