head cheese

Meats and Sausages

Head Cheese

Traditionally head cheese was made entirely from the meat of the head of a hog, cured and stuffed in large beef bungs or in pork stomachs. We may find this choice of meat today less appealing, forgetting at the same time the fact that pork head meat is highly nutritional and flavorsome. Do not confuse head meat with brains. Bear in mind that the head is boiled first until the meat easily separates from the bones and then it looks like any other meat. Persons living in metropolitan areas cannot buy pork head anyhow but still can make a great tasting product by using pork picnic and pigs feet. Nowadays head cheese can include edible parts of the feet, tongue, and heart.

A plate with a variety of meats and sausages.

Traditionally made head cheese incorporates many different meat cuts.

A head cheese incorporates a variety of meat cuts: pork head meat, jowls, skins, tongue, snout, ears, heart; all those cuts exhibit different texture and flavor. It is a combination meat platter inside one casing.

In English, the name head cheese doesn’t sound appealing and it prevents many people from trying the product. In other languages it is called in a friendlier manner, without the word “head” being part of the name. When vinegar is added, it is called “souse” and this already sounds much better. Head cheese, brawn, or souse are not cheeses, but rather jellied loaves or sausages that may or may not be stuffed into the large diameter casing. They can be easily found in places that cater to Central Europeans, Eastern Europeans and Italians.

Many of us have made a head cheese before without even realizing it, although pork head meat was not a part of the recipe. Every time we cook meat stock or chicken soup based on bones we are making a weak version of a head cheese. The reason the soup does not become a meat jelly is because there is too much water in it.

If this stock would simmer for a long time, enough water will be lost, and the resulting liquid, when cooled will solidify and become a jelly. In the past, after the first and second World War, or even in most countries today, people had no opportunity to buy a commercially made gelatin. And this is why those unappealing cuts of meat like pork head, jowls, skins, hocks, legs and fatty picnic legs started to shine.

You cannot make the real head cheese by using noble cuts like hams, tender loins or other tender lean meats. Those expensive cuts don’t contain enough connective tissues (collagen) in order to make natural gelatin. You can use them, but a commercial grade gelatin must be added and of course the taste and flavor of the finished product will be less satisfactory although the resulting jelly will be very clear. Making head cheese is quite easy as the procedure does not involve the use of special equipment like a grinder or stuffer. Every kitchen contains all utensils that will be needed.

Types of Head Cheeses

  • Regular head cheese – pork head meat, jowls, skins, snouts, pigs feet, gelatin.
  • Tongue head cheese – in addition to the above mentioned meats the tongue added. It should be cured with salt and nitrite in order to develop a pink color.
  • Blood head cheese – head cheese made with blood. Such a head cheese is much darker in color.
  • Souse – a typical head cheese to which vinegar has been added. Similar to sulz but not limited to pig’s feet only. Most people eat head cheese with vinegar or lemon juice anyway so it comes as no surprise that vinegar would be added to head cheese during manufacture. It also increases the keeping qualities of the sausage as all foods containing vinegar last longer. Souse contains more jelly than a regular head cheese. In addition pimentos, green peppers or pickles are often added for decoration. Both sulz and souse contain about 75% of meat, 25% of jelly and around 3% of vinegar.
  • Sulz – original head cheese made of pigs feet with the bone in. Later bones were removed to facilitate slicing. This name can be found in some older books. It was made with pig’s feet only but often snouts and pig skins were added as well. Meat jellies made from pig’s feet are still popular in many European countries, for example in Poland where they are known as pig’s feet in aspic ( Nóżki w Galarecie). Pickled pigs feet which are sold today are basically sulz in vinegar.

Head cheese, souse and sulz are all very similar, the main difference is that souse and sulz contain vinegar and more gelatin.

Manufacturing Process

Meat Selection

Traditionally made head cheese requires meats with a high collagen content to produce a natural gelatin. Anybody can buy a commercial gelatin, mix it with water and create jelly. However, such a jelly has no taste at all and is a poor in=mitation of a naturally produced meat stock. Meat cuts such as pork head, hocks and skins are capable of producing a lot of natural gelatin as they contain a lot of connective tissue that will produce gelatin. In addition tongues, hearts, snouts and skins are also used as filler meats. Commercially made products don’t depend on natural gelatin and use commercially produced gelatin powder instead. It is a natural product which is made from bones (pork and beef) and skins. Before meats will be submitted to cooking in hot water a decision has to be made whether the meats will be cured or not. Commercial producer will invariably choose to cure meats with nitrite in order to obtain a typical pink color.

Meats that were traditionally used for head cheeses were:

  • Pork heads (cured or not), often split in half – boiled in hot water at about 194º F (90º C) until meat is easily removed from bones by hand. They should be first soaked for 1-2 hours in cold water to remove any traces of coagulated blood.
  • Pork hocks (cured or not) – boiled at about 194º F (90º C) until meat is easily removed from bones by hand.
  • Skins – pork skins should be clean without any remaining hair or excess fat. They are cooked at 185-194º F (85-90º C) until soft. This may require a longer cooking time. Pork shanks with meat (picnic), cured or not – boiled in hot water at about 194º F (90º C) until soft.
  • Lean pork trimmings (cured or not) – boiled in hot water at about 194º F (90º C) until soft.
  • Hearts (cured or not) – boiled in hot water at about 194º F (90º C) until soft. Hearts are first cut open and any remaining blood is rinsed away in cold water. The heart is a very hard working muscle and will be of a dark red color due to its high content of myoglobin. It should be diced into small diameter pieces (1/4”, 5-6 mm) otherwise it will stand out.
  • Tongues (cured or not) – boiled in hot water at about 194º F (90º C) until soft. Pork or beef tongues are very often used but the outer skin on the tongues must be removed due to its bitter taste. It is easily accomplished once the tongues are submerged for a few minutes in hot water.

Looking at the above listed meats it is easy to conclude that a person living in a large city should not face any difficulty in making a head cheese. Some substitutions need to be made as pork heads will not be generally available, but tongues or even hearts are frequently seen in supermarkets (they are of least importance as they contain little collagen). Instead of using unusual and fatty cuts of the hog (head) which may be available only at specialty butcher stores, the similar results could be achieved by smart substitution of meats and adding some gelatin, even if a natural less fatty broth is produced. Picnic (lower front leg) and pork butt are common items and will make a great head cheese. Picnic and pig feet will produce a lot of gelatin.

A meat plant or a farmer will have access to traditionally used cuts of meat:

Every year for Christmas and Easter “Dziadek” – the Polish sausagemaker slaughters his own pig

Traditionally head cheese was made entirely from the meat of the head of a hog, cured and stuffed in large beef bungs or in pork stomachs.