Homemade Head Cheese

Well, after four and a half years of blogging in this space, here we are with a title that may or may not get me into trouble.

It was a short interview with Dan Barber that gave me the gumption to share this charcuterie tutorial of sorts. He was talking about his theory of The Third Plate and the need to support the whole farm with our eating choices. While he is slightly elitist in his approach, I have to agree with his thoughts on food sustainability.

The way I see it is, if you’re eating bacon, why not be open to trying delicious charcuterie made from other parts of the body? In the end, it’s all pork.

How to make head cheese | Simple Bites #charcuterie #diy

We attended a family pig roast a few weekends back and I was offered the head to bring home. Of course I said yes, and also took with me a literal bag of bones for stock, split pea soup and Mexican ranch-syle beans. Then the real fun began.

Now you should know that head cheese isn’t scary and it isn’t cheese. It’s tender, slow cooked pork that is packed into a terrine or mold, and set with a delicious broth which firms up into a savoury jelly. My grandmother used to make it on the family farm in the Prairies and my mother loves it to this day.

My version ended up similar to a meaty paté or pork rillette and didn’t hold together as well as the classic tête fromagée you’d find in Québec delis. Still, it was rich and satisfying.

We smeared dijon with horseradish onto fresh baguette and piled head cheese on top. An assortment of pickles – carrot, garlic dill, and fiddleheads – provided the perfect garnish. The salt and vinegar from the pickles balanced out the rich head cheese.

Talk about addicting! Danny poured a beer and we snacked our Sunday afternoon away.

How to make head cheese | Simple Bites #charcuterie #diy

How to make head cheese: a method of sorts

Now, rather than give an exact recipe, I’m going to share the steps I took to make homemade head cheese. In no way do I claim to be an expert on the subject —  truth be told, my head cheese needs perfecting — but if I can inspire one reader to attempt the same (and likely, better) my job here is done.

Traditionally, head cheese is made from an uncooked pig’s head, but mine had been slow roasted at the afore-mentioned family function. It contains plenty of meat and heaps of that superfood, natural gelatin.

Step 1. Simmer the head

I began by submerging the pig’s head in water in my largest pot. It looks terrible, it really does. And it’s not going to get any better, I’m sorry. I tossed in two pig hocks as well, because as I mentioned before, I had a literal bag of bones to use. The hocks contributed to the flavour and gelatin, but didn’t contribute much meat in the end.

To the pot I added:

  • 1 heaping teaspoon of peppercorn
  • 4 stalks of celery
  • large bunch of garden herbs (I had parsley & thyme)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 large garlic cloves
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 teaspoon whole allspice

This formed the basis of my pork stock and I was off! I brought the stock up to a boil, then reduced to a simmer. I cooked it for 3 hours.

You could make up your own aromatics for the stock. I could have been more exciting, but this was my first attempt and I wanted to stick to the basics.

I apologize in advance if the following images make you squirm, but they are all part of the story. 

How to make head cheese | Simple Bites #charcuterie #diy

Step 2: Collect the pork  and strain the stock

This was the most disgusting part, but it goes fast. I recommend having a highly distracting podcast playing (thanks, Joy and Tracy) and don’t for one second think about what you are doing.

OK. Roll up your sleeves! Collect a large bowl for bones and scraps and a smaller bowl for meat. Find a large tray or baking sheet to work on. If you have a large slotted spoon or an Asian Spider Strainer grab one of those too. Now might be a good time to wear thin plastic kitchen gloves, although I didn’t have any around.

Fish out the head (it may have fallen apart with the slow cooking) and place it on your tray. (It helped to have the snout pointing away from me.) Basically, pull off the skin and get rid of it. Next, pull every single bit of meat off of the bones and place it in your ‘keep’ bowl. No need to dig around in the skull; we’re not using the brains. Or eyeballs. Shudder.

Cover the meat with a little stock, then wrap in plastic and refrigerate. I got about 4 cups of pork.

Once you’ve collected all the bones from the pot, it is time to strain the stock. Pour it through a fine sieve and into a large bowl or bucket. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate so that the fat can rise and congeal.

How to make headcheese | Simple Bites #charcuterie #diy

Step 3: Build the head cheese

Skim the fat off of the stock and bring it to a boil in a large pot. Reduce it by about half, then season it with salt. Be sure to taste it and adjust the salt accordingly. Cool slightly.

Line a loaf pan (or your mold of choice) with plastic wrap. Finely chop a few tablespoons of parsley. Shred the pork into strips and lay it in the loaf pans. Pour a little stock over the top and sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Repeat until all the meat is used up. Top with a little more stock, then place in the refrigerator to set. Chill overnight, minimum.

You will have leftover pork stock. Freeze it for soups or braising. Or reduce it to make homemade bouillon (recipe coming later this week).

To serve: unmould the head cheese. Slice with a very sharp knife. Serve with bread, mustard and pickles. Or make some fantastic Bahn Mi. Your call.

Thanks for reading! I know this was a little unusual for this space, but this was such a fun little project, I had to share.

Questions? Comments? Would you ever make head cheese?

About Aimee

Cooking has always been Aimée's preferred recreational activity, creative outlet, and source of relaxation. After nearly ten years in the professional cooking industry, she went from restaurant to RSS by trading her tongs and clogs for cookie cutters and a laptop, serving as editor here at Simple Bites. Her first book, Brown Eggs and Jam Jars - Family Recipes from the Kitchen of Simple Bites, was published in February 2015.

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Comments

  1. Well I wouldn’t make head cheese on my own but with Neil by my side I would! (He could do the icky bits!). When I worked my way through Ruhlman’s Charcuterie in 2011, we made 2x recipes from the book every month for a year and we did quite a few things that made me squirm. The head cheese chapter happened in the summer when I happened to be in Paris and Neil was still home so he took charge of that and ended up rounding up “various pig parts” (he couldn’t find a whole head) on one of the hottest days of the year in Toronto. He said he felt vaguely evil wandering around with a cooler full of animal parts 😉 Me, in Paris, I made pâté! And the head cheese was apparently delicious! You did a GREAT job Aimée – and you even made headcheese look pretty!

  2. I’m so proud of you! And I’m relieved to hear that you shuddered. I was thinking that you were a super woman while I was a total wimp. You ARE a superwoman, but also an honest one. Thanks for helping me visualize Ma Ingalls’ regular gig. 🙂

    • I was thinking of Ma when I made this! Haha, yes, I don’t have a stomach of steel.

      • Blake Newell says

        Congrats on trying something new. I’ve helped make headcheese, scrapple, & such things for nearly 60 years. You’ll get a more “durable” loaf if you cut the meat ( and yes, this includes the snout, ears, tongue, etc.) into uniform 3/8″ cubes or fry-like sticks. Season to taste, put back in the liquid & allow to simmer an hour or so, skimming off any fat which rises. This allows the gelatin to actually soak into the meat. Also, make sure any veggies ( I’m German & Lakota Sioux, so prefer my veggies on the side) are chopped very small (corn-kernel size), as they have water & oils in them which prevent the gelatin from firming up.
        After you cast the loaf, cool it uncovered for at least a couple of days in the fridge. You’ll notice the loaf will shrink 1/4″ or more from the pan walls, allowing you to lift it out & wrap it in cheese cloth (for immediate use), or butcher paper or vacuum pack it for the freezer.
        You can also slice it into 1″ sticks & put them into a gallon jar, fill with COLD vinegar, jalapenos, coarse black pepper, & carrot spears & let them pickle for a few days. Nothing better with a cold Olympia on a hot summer day!

        • Thank you for explaining all that so clearly! Wish I had read all that before hacking up my loaf and freezing it as soon as it gelled. And surprise, surprise, I had trouble with it falling apart, because I also didn’t simmer the bits in with the broth… If I make it again, I’ll be sure to follow your advice!

        • Thank You Blake I will try slicing them into sticks !~ love that idea ~! You Rock !~ OLD SCHOOL LADY !~

    • Blake Newell says

      Hey, Guys! It sounds like many of you have missed out on a lot of good eating. You can do the same trick with chicken, turkey, picnic hams, etc. This is an old way of preserving most any meat for survival. Gelatin is virtually air-proof, and will keep meat delicious for months, as long as it’s in a cool, dry, dark place. You can boil feet, legs, heads, joints, and rib bones to get your gelatin (that’s exactly where Knox & the other store brands get that stuff they sell you by the little box or pouch). It takes scraps & trimmings from the butchering process & produces a delicious, beautiful sandwich meat. Remember, a lot of us “seasoned citizens” lived without fridges & the like.

      • Blake,

        Thank you for this comment. I’ve dehydrated food, fermented food, canned food, frozen food, attempted (and failed) freeze drying food, curing food, but I’ve never ever considered preserving all of those types of meats in gelatins. This is something I need to explore more. Thank you for sharing your experience.

        Aimee,

        Thank you for the amazing article and the beautiful photos. You did a beautiful job and I’m so impressed that you took this on. A lot of people leave this kind of food as a magical secret reserved for only huge corporations to perform.

        All the best,
        Diana

  3. The last time I purchased 1/2 pig from the butcher I was offered the head. I asked what I would do with it and he told me head cheese. I politely declined (chickened out) as its something I’ve never eaten. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  4. Thanks for sharing your recipe! We made some pig head cheese in 2010 (old blog link: http://thepoulecouveuse.canalblog.com/archives/2010/11/07/19545057.html ) and last years (http://savoirvivreautrement.blogspot.ca/2013/10/une-semaine-bien-occupee.html) and it’s delicious!

  5. I grew up eating head cheese and absolutely love it! I haven’t yet made my own but it’s certainly on my bucket list. Enjoyed reading about your experience!

  6. Haha, I’ve never heard of head cheese before but your spread up there is gorgeous and totally worth recreating!

  7. Oh, Aimee! I am duly impressed with your head cheese. It really does look pretty and delicious but I would never be able to make this myself! Love your blog! It is so inspiring!

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this! I have always wanted to learn how to make head cheese…now, if I ever luck into a fresh pig’s head, I’ll know what to do with it! Until then I’ll have to drool over your photos…

  9. YOU.ARE.SO.BRAVE.

    • Hah! This was certainly up there on the ‘ick’ scale.

      • RALPH BECKER says

        I have watched my grand father make head cheese, liverwurst and smoke other kinds of sausage. They smoked head cheese that was very good. The name keeps a lot of people from eating it and if bacon were called pork belly fat a lot of people would not eat it either. Actually in German it has a completely different name. Two companies I know that make it very well is Usingers in Milwaukee ,Wi. Smoked, and Bobaks in Chicago area made with garlic both a little different from each other good .I believe both are on line.

  10. Aimee, so glad you posted this. So much good food wasted for silly reasons! We raise pigs and last year we attempted to make head cheese. We brined the heads, tails, ears, hocks for a day first and then boiled them. I used some of the meat on pasta that night and the kids went nuts – they loved it! Unfortunately, we put the rest of the meat to deal with the next day in an old fridge in the barn. It wasn’t cool enough and the meat didn’t cool properly and spoiled so we weren’t able to make the head cheese itself. So much meat! BTW, the ears and tails, brined and roasted, are very tasty too. And make a great addition in bean soups.

  11. Oh my dear, I made it through the whole post AND all the pics, and I feel I’ve been almost as brave as you! It is so sensible and humane to use as much of a slaughtered animal as possible, so thank you for doing this!

  12. Glad to see the entire animal is put to great use!

  13. I have never tried head cheese as I only ever see it in the grocery stores. It always seems to be made with lots of extra (questionable?) stuff. Maybe it is just my prejudice as the name ‘head cheese’ sounds awful. Your pictures and recipe make it something I would not only eat but try to make. I do like the idea that your pig’s head was already cooked.

  14. Well, the face has some tender eating on it! No reason to waste it! I’m not afraid of doing that, in fact, I’d likely be the sicko making the pig “talk” while I’m taking it apart…*grin*

    I have a hard time with gelatin, though. That texture really makes me gag…but I know it is a superfood and really nutritious and that I need to eat it, but ick. 🙁

    • If you’re wanting to eat more gelatin, try it in your morning coffee the way I do. I use the Great Lakes grass-fed gelatin (in the red canister, order it off Amazon). Here’s how I do it: pour hot coffee into wide-mouth mason jar, add 1 Tbsp. gelatin, 2 tsp. butter, 1 tsp. coconut oil, a pinch of salt, and 1 tsp. raw honey. I whiz it all up with my immersion blender, and voila, I have myself a very tasty morning latte of sorts (dairy-free, well sort of except for the butter but you could use ghee if you’re dairy-free or something). It’s a great way to eat more gelatin without dealing with the texture!

  15. This was so interesting!! I honestly had no idea what head cheese was, though I’ve heard of it before. Thanks so much for sharing this! If I ever get to purchase a whole pig, I will definitely be attempting this (but, I will enlist my husband to help me in case I end up not as brave as you!).

  16. Well, I’m inspired. I have never had head cheese- not because I’m squeamish but it just looks terrible. But yours looks delicious. I’m still not inspired to try the grocer’s fare but I want to make it.
    If I can get a raw pig head can I follow these same directions? And would there be a difference in flavour? Also that head looks a little big for the pot- did you really cook it in there or is that to makes a pigs head a little more photogenic? (You can’t put lipstick on a pig, as the saying goes! However, it seems you can make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Wow, there’s no shortage of pig idioms)
    I like making use of a whole animal where possible but Im sure there’ll be more than one shudder in the process. Thank you for sharing- I wouldn’t have ever considered this, otherwise.

    • I’m laughing so hard at your pig idioms! And yes, I dressed up the head in that pot, then transferred it to a massive stock pot.
      Same directions for a raw head. It won’t have the smokey flavour that mine did. You may want to up the amount of aromatics in the stock.
      Thanks for reading!

  17. Thanks for sharing how to do this – I think I’d be up for it now that I know we don’t use the brain or the eyeballs. That was my main concern, since I can’t bring myself to eat the organs. I worked in a small meat locker when I was in high school, so that got me over a lot of my squeamishness – you just can’t be when you have to catalog the skinned cattle hanging off the meat hooks – so I think if I could find a big enough pot, I could do it. I also like the idea of using the whole animal. Your blog is one of my favorites, I always learn something. Thanks again.

  18. I’ve never eaten head cheese, and I honestly never knew what it was until today! Fascinating! I truly appreciate using all of an animal that gave its life so others could live. Well done, great post.

  19. You may be the only person on the internet who can make a pig’s head in a dutch oven look presentable! 😉 Love your photos, and now I’ll have a picture in mind next time I read Farmer Boy and they make head cheese. Once I learned about gelatin, I realized what head cheese must have been (a gelled broth with bits of meat), but never had any idea what it would have ended up looking like. It does sound pretty tasty, especially with mustard and pickles and fresh bread!

  20. Very interesting and rather yummy looking results – thank you for sharing! My mom has my great grandmother’s Cassell’s cookery books which contain all sorts of interesting things (all cooked on/in the wood stove, of course) just like this. No waste at the farm. What will you try next?

  21. We grew up in New Orleans eating spicy hogshead cheese on a regular basis. It never occurred to me to try and make my own since there are plenty of companies in south Louisiana that delicious versions. I saved your recipe and if I can get past the nostrils & snout I will definitely give it a try. Your version looks delicious!

  22. Aimee, this sounds incredible! Now I want to source a whole pig’s head and make headcheese too. You made it sound like something ordinary people could do…don’t think I would have had the courage to even think about attempting it until now! Greatly enjoyed reading this 🙂

  23. Inspired! I have a pig’s head in my freezer and am totally intimated by Ruhlman’s recipe in Charcuterie, thanks for making it seem so much simpler and easier than that! I can do this! Pig’s head is officially going in the stock pot soon.

    • Stephanie Guaiumi says

      Hi – my husband made it, twice, using the recipe from Charcuterie and definitely did better the second time after he had a feel for it. The first time, he cooked the broth down too much and it made the head cheese too rich and a little strong tasting. I just used half a loaf od head cheese, cut up, in Mexican posole stew, as I didn’t have any pig feet or shanks around. I also used a large amount for home-made pork broth we had left from last pig we bought. It was fabulous, a great way to use this delicious stuff which is hard to eat a lot of on its own.

  24. Just laughing at this as I do not eat pork, but we have been -er – um – processing some non-productive or useless or simply grumpy roosters – and done right, the stock is really rather firm in nature. so we may make Rooster-cheese, having read this! and my sweetie likely would cook and enjoy head cheese. I just don’t eat pork (haven’t for 36 years, not likely to change)…… LOL loved the comments, the visuals. great post!

  25. To help with the head cheese not falling apart, place another mold on top of your cheese before putting in the fridge to set (put plastic over the cheese first). Put some weight in the top mold. That will help compress it a bit. It may reduce the amount of gelatin within the cheese itself, but not by much.

  26. Bravo for your bravery! I have no problem making or eating head cheese – I’m of the same mindset, if you can eat meat then you should be able to eat it all.

    But then again, I grew up with my grandma slaughtering chickens in our kitchen for meals. And that seems tame next to handling a pig head.

  27. Kaitlin Jenkins says

    I’ve never tried eating head cheese although I’ve read quite a bit about it. I found your experience fascinating!

  28. I’m so happy you posted about this! You made the whole process look beautiful – I’m thankful for the editing 😉

    Up next, pig-bladder balloons, eh? 😉

  29. I can’t say I’m quite ready to try this yet, but you made it look so approachable and even tasty that I think I can at least say that I might try it at some point. Fantastic post on a potentially tricky subject!

  30. Ok you got me started. We bought a pig from the butcher 3 months ago. To my surprise, there, in my box, were two big pieces wrapped in white butcher wrap and written “head” ewwww. I would never… Then I saw your post!. Ok, time to suck it up, if Amy is game, I can do this !! So this weekend is the big weekend! So my question is, I was thinking of putting the head cheese in little mason jars and canning it. Is there anything I should do different from regular meat canning that I should know? Thanks for openning the door to try something I didn’t think I would EVER try making 😉

    • Blake Newell says

      When canning head cheese, leave 1-1/2″ air space, rather than the regular 1″. Gelatin expands a bit more than meat.

  31. Debbie Caraballo says

    So very refreshing to see something from “back in the day” on a modern day post!
    I grew up eating head cheese, but we didn’t raise hogs, so it was always the purchased kind. I’ve always loved it. It’s a shame to waste any meat of any kind – and as a dear elderly lady told me once, they used everything but the squeal!

  32. Hi Aimee,
    I bought a whole pig earlier this year and saved the head in the freezer to make posole for Christmas, but after finding this blog, I’m going to save half of the meat and broth to make head cheese. I’ve always loved it since I lived in France, but had no idea how simple it is to make. Thanks for demystifying it.

  33. Hello Aimee, I was poking around looking for headcheese recipes and really enjoyed your post. My wife and I bought a 1/2 pig recently and I asked for the head for this purpose. I have never made head cheese but do like it quite well. I am trying to learn charcuterie and am excited about this adventure. Interestingly, the butcher who I got the pig from was surprised that I wanted the head. Apparently that is not a common request at their store. If all turns out well I will let you know!

  34. Ok, I am getting a whole hog, and may have the opportunity to keep the head. I think we’re going to give this a shot. Wish us luck!

  35. Hi Aimee –

    So happy to have found your post. I attempted head cheese a few years ago with a rotisseried pig’s head, but I cooked it a very long time, used everything on the head (eyes, brains, snout, ears, you name it) because that’s what I figured peasants would have done. I added vinegar to the stock…it was not very good.

    I have two more bbq-ed pigs heads in my freezer now, awaiting my next weird idea.

    Do you think a shorter braising time, more spices and aromatics, and no vinegar (which is a common German addition) might make my head cheese tastier?

    I also have the frozen livers and blood for sausage-making, if you have any suggestions.

  36. RAY STRAILE says

    I HAVE EATEN HEAD CHEESE & SOUSE SINCE I WAS A WEE TAD. I CAN ONLY FIND IT IN ONE MRKET HERE IN NE TN. UNFORTUNATELY AM NOT EQUIPPED TO MAKE IT. WE LIVED IN EASTERN PA FOR YEAR & IT IS A STAPLE IN EVERY FARMER’S MARLET IN READING & ALL OVER SE PA. WE ALSO MADE REAL MINCE MEAT PIES. MY MOM & I USED TO MAKE A MEAL PN PIG’S FEET. MY FRIENDS MADE SOUSE & SCRAPPLE ON A REGULAR BASIS. THANK YOY, RAY

  37. JIMMIE CALHOUN says

    Hello ,please what can I use to make it jel without the jel from the pork, if I wanted to do chicken?

  38. Jakub Przedzienkowski says

    Love these kinds of recipes. I made head cheese, Jellied pigs feet, blood sausage ete.
    Have the ingredienets and herbs is all that’s needed to make it.
    Only difficulty is getting a whole pigs head and blood.
    But there are ways around it.
    Will try your recipe soon.
    Regards

  39. So I remember my Mom, Grandma, and a great aunt making this. They also used onions and extra gelatin to make sure it set. The meat was coarsely shredded…I remember getting excited if I found a big piece of meat! We’d make sandwiches with it on homemade bread, mustard and freshly ground horseradish. Because Mom favored it, she did not limit the meat to just the head. But, she did use extra bones for the sake of flavor in the broth. Good stuff. A lot of work. Sadly, no recipe.

  40. I make a version of this but using my moms recipe she used fresh pig trotters and shanks. Basically the recipes are quite the same, I fill the pot with trotters and shanks, a head of pealed and chopped garlic, cover with water, bring it to a boil and salt to taste and let it simmer (a rolling simmer) for 7 hours. Yes I said 7 hours as this makes the difference between it getting a real good gelatin or not. I then chop the meat, skin and bones to smaller bite size pieces( keep the skin and bones, I don’t throw it out as this only adds to the flavor and texture). After the 7 hours, ladle meat, bones and broth in to small glass bowls, and them let cool enough to put in to the fridge. The fat from the meat will separate and harden to the top, leave it there until you are ready to eat it, as this will also keep it from drying out.

  41. Sick as hell. Mentally ill.

  42. I am making headcheese today in my 6qt instapot ….the pigs head was already split and each half quartered which was perfect fit …. half head 5 lbs! So I will do in 2 batches pressure cooking 60 mins. After reading comments I will apply some of the advise to finish off. My first recipe is one I found on you tube today for pressure cooking brawn.

  43. Headcheese is great. Only problem is finding a head to cook. I live in TN and have not been able to find a head.

  44. Can you make it with any other part of the animal, your end product looked delicious, but not sure about the pigs head. I live in south Australia, don’t see many pig heads around.

    • Thanks, so much for this recipe. I’ve been searching all over to find someone who actually knew about head cheese. Living in Seattle they look at you crazy for even asking, but thanks to the Asian markets you can actually get a pigs head.

  45. Hi there
    This is an old Ukrainian Christmas tradition but my Dad used Pork Hocks also lots of garlic.
    Recently my Romanian neighbour gave me a taste of her head cheese. Traditionaly they use pork but this time she used turkey and it was fabulous she also places a cut if half boiled eggs and a few strips of red bell pepper on top. It was really good

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