a home cook with notions & an appetite
Headcheese. No, it’s not dairy. But it is delicious.
Haven’t we all heard it? Nose to tail? Old school? Charcuterie? Well, this is the nose and then some. This is an tale of a pig’s head, making gelatin, a father’s musings on lumberjacks and a phone call just to utter a sentence only possible while making headcheese.
Photos of a pigs head will be included. It’s okay. But now you know. I feel like one of those odd NPR warnings that tell you a graphic depiction of surgery is going to be described on the radio where I’m briefly confronted with the fact that someone has complained their eight-year-old was scared for life because they found out that gum surgery really existed in the cold harsh world.
So, where to start? Ah, the pig’s head. This is not an item one finds at the local megamart. Well…there were a lot at the beginning of the year at a local supermarket when OSU played Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, but I think that’s because they expected the Buckeye fans to play some sort of strange homage to Lord of the Flies in the name of football fandom. Either way, it was June and long past the time I’d find random sports-related pig heads in the freezer section of the grocery.
We luck out at Thurn’s because we’re good and chatty customers. Thurn’s is not a grocery or a butcher but is actually a place that does their own German-style cured meats and sausages and a few others that are not-so-German (their andouille is excellent). We’ve chatted bacon curing a few times and they’ve become my pork belly supplier, so the query was put in (along with a purchase of their most excellent franks and smoked ham salad) for a whole pigs head. Being the enablers that they are, they agreed to let us buy one – and even cut it in half to help us out with the whole process. So, headcheese lesson #1: Be on good terms your local meat purveyors.
The bulk of our headcheese adventure comes from Michael Rhulman’s Charcuterie with a healthy bit of help from The Rooter to the Tooter’s entry on Headcheese. And even a dash of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Meat Cookbook. Between these three things, we quickly learn headcheese lesson #2: There is no one way to do headcheese and lesson #3: Strap in because headcheese is a multi-day affair.
So we first need to get to the random head prep. There were no hard and fast rules on what prep did and didn’t get done, so here are the things we did do:
Our next bit of prep started out innocently enough, but turned into an assault on our noses. Durian-style assault. The pig’s feet (or trotters) which were bought at our local megamart in the cryopack with great joy and happiness devolved quickly into “the bad things.”
Pigs don’t wear shoes. It’s a fact. Not even flip flops. Nor do they get regular pedicures. I can find no record that pigs even take the time to regularly scrub their tootsies while being raised for slaughter. So when the time comes, you’ve got some feet that have spent some time in the funk. While the slaughterhouse will clean and sanitize your trotters, once it’s immediately cryopacked, any pH imbalances that cause foot-funk are still there. Ever wet-age beef and open the cryo-pack and immediately notice the extra-meaty smell? Or notice how a bag of hot dogs that’s been in the fridge a bit has that funky meat smell? Imagine that, only it’s the worst mixture of raw meat and old sweat socks with a healthy dose of sulfur mixed in for good measure. We look at the sell-by-date and we were well ahead of the game. And our market’s rep for storing meat was fine…so we knew the feet were fine but came with the bonus of funky smell.
The issue: You want the pig’s feet to ensure you get that awesome gelatin, but you don’t want it to smell like sweat socks and sulfur. Here’s how you fix it. First, rinse it (as above) with water. That gets rid of cryopack juice. Next, boil a pot of water – add a splash of vinegar (plain white). Blanch the pigs feet for a minute and rinse with cold water. Repeat up to 3 times. You’ll notice the smell is nearly gone. Crisis averted. Lesson #4: Bad smells can accompany good things.
Of course, if we could find fresh trotters that hadn’t had to sit in a cryopack, this wouldn’t have been an issue.
Housekeeping aside, Day 1 ended with a brine. The brine is Charcuterie‘s recommendation. Basic brine (1 gallon) is done with the following:
Our pig head could not be confined by a mere gallon of brine (not to mention the trotters), so we doubled everything. After simmering and cooling down the brine, head and trotters went in overnight.
Here’s where we start to combine a bit of everyone. The brine is rinsed thoroughly, but I can assure you that the final product will retain quite a bit of salt. We include the following:
This is all open to interpretation as you read up on headcheese. Why? Because you’re going to be cooking this head for four hours and they’re ultimately your flavors to meld.
This is the fire pit. It is a fun thing to have in the backyard. Not only can you make authentic s’mores whenever you want, but it’s a good way to cook a hog head for four hours without heating up the house.
A few bits of housekeeping. For the first hour, there’s a bit of skimming to do. Just some general stuff to take out of the pot and not assume you’ll get out “later” when you drain everything. After that hour, a bottle of white wine is added. See how big this pot is (it’s a lobster pot)? That bottle of wine will barely fit even after an hour of evaporation. The law of smoke will also be in effect. The law of smoke simply states that the smoke will flow into your face no matter how often you change position around the fire pit. For the most part, you’ll take it easy for these three hours, maintaining a simmer and waiting for the jawbone to easily separate from the rest of the skull. You’ll also learn Lesson #5: That episode of CSI where a skull is boiled cleaned in 10 minutes so they can solve a case before lunch is a lie.
See that liquid? It’s gold for a reason. We fished out the solids and transferred the pot of pork broth (fingers crossed for pork jello!) to the refrigerator to sit overnight.
Next comes one of the more exciting evenings you and your spouse can have. Slap on the latex (gloves) and get ready for a shredding good time! You’ll be up to your elbows in pork.
Lesson #6: You’re better off spreading out your stuff to let it cool than just letting everything hang out in the pot for a few hours. Let our lesson be yours. Leaving it in another large pot means the stuff in the bottom will still be plenty warm and while the gloves are keeping the pork bits from completely taking over your nail beds, they do a lousy job of protecting them from the added warmth.
What to shred and set aside was up for a lot of discussion. Well, what not to shred was universal – you may not be able to see it in the photo, but traces of the veggies and whole spices were all picked out to the best of our ability (you could put them in cheesecloth to save the trouble later). No one saves the eyes.
Now onto what we did that fell into optional stuff. We took out the tongue and skinned it and set it aside. You’ll see why later. We concentrated on meat first and when we saw our haul, we chose not to put in much by way of skin and/or fat. The second photo is an 11×17 roasting pan that ended up very full. Some of the meat we had was plenty fatty, so we weren’t going to be at a loss for pork fat goodness. Plenty of folks are all about putting in skin and fat as well which is all about that no one way to make headcheese.
At the end of day two, we covered our pork meat and sent it off to join the pork broth (please be jello!) in the refrigerator.
We take out our broth – and YAY…there’s gelatin. Under quite an impressive layer of pork fat. The top photo is pork fat that we began scraping out of the top layer of the gelatin. This sounds like it should be easy, but the gelatin doesn’t set up super hard (it shouldn’t), so you have to have a gentle hand while taking this layer of fat off.
Pork Fat as a Madeline: Mentioning the pork fat scrapings to your father can lead to tales of lumberjack soap made by your great-grandmother from her own pork fat collections. And tales of said lumberjacks eating the headcheese your great-grandmother made.
Of course, we aren’t quite there yet. The gelatin has a way to go before it’s ready to become part of headcheese. It goes on the stove and is heated until it is liquid again.
Exciting things first…straining the cooking liquid. I can’t make this step sound exciting, but I can assure you that it is necessary.
This is also the beginning of the Taste.Every.Last.Step part.
After straining the cooking liquid, it goes back on the burner until it is reduced by 1/3. This takes a bit, so we took the time to get our meat mixture ready.
I’m sure Lesson #7 would have something to do with multi-tasking, but I’m really running out of steam on the lessons. Pork is good and all, but it’s not unlimited in its ability to pass along life lessons.
Those little pork cubes are pork cubes because they’re full of gelatin-y goodness. We take our seasoning advice from The Rooter to the Tooter, although we didn’t want to do creole seasoning.
What isn’t pictured are the spice piles. We started with various spice mixtures and dipped pieces of pork in them to get an idea of how the final product might taste. Old Bay wasn’t even on the radar when we started, but it turned out to be the one in the end. We also followed the advice to over season.
As I mixed in the spices by hand (gloved), I also shredded the meat into smaller pieces.
In the meantime, the gelatin liquid reduced. When we tasted it, we knew one thing right away: it had plenty of salt. What it needed was a tiny amount of vinegar. Banyuls to the rescue – but only a small amount (thank you Thomas Keller for introducing that vinegar to us).
Finally, it was time for the assembly. Pullman loaf pan to the rescue. If it can make an extra-large loaf of bread, it can make a huge loaf of headcheese.
The object is not to pack this sucker super-tight. Loose but full. That’s key.
After the first half, out comes the tongue (remember that?). Just a fun surprise in the middle.
The last half. Same as the first half. Loose, but full. After I’m done, a few thwaps on the counter to make sure I don’t have any obvious air pockets that will turn into pork gelatin pockets that are completely devoid of meat.
This is not all of the gelatin mixture. We poured carefully and let it seep into the meat. At this point, we were worried we might have had too much. Truth is, we probably could have had a bit more.
We did do a small counter thwap to even out everything.
I failed to mention that we lined the pullman pan with plastic wrap and plenty of overhang. In the end, this was so we could cover the top of the headcheese (that’s what this is!) with plastic wrap before we put it in the refrigerator to set overnight.
That’s right, this is the home stretch!
So it’s the next day and we pull it out of the fridge. Guess what we have?
A loaf of headcheese. One that’s been eaten plain, eaten with baguette, eaten on crackers, eaten as sandwich on soft bread with stadium mustard and just as a general snack. The Old Bay spice didn’t quite mute as much as promised, but it’s still very tasty.
I don’t know who the first person was who figured out this whole process, but I’m very glad they did.