27 October 2009


There’s no avoiding the bad name; maybe Americans should look abroad and consider brawn, souse, or fromage de tête, syltty or huspenina, as it’s known in some of the lands of our parents and grandparents. Headcheese sounds like it’s made with mucus or boogers, and the name has somehow come into American English as a real unknown. What is it and why did people ever make it? Does anyone even care to know what it is, outside of the handful of bloggers who populate the internet and drive the search engines to their sites? You might even think I’ve moved away from my love of food and am searching for food with a shock value.
If you or I walked into a nice restaurant and saw Cheek Medallions from Berkshire Pig with Juniper Berries and Port Wine Cranberry Glaze we wouldn’t think twice about it, except to wonder if we should order it. But say headcheese and most people will cringe, even while admitting they don’t know what it is and don’t care to know; they assume it’s gross.

I made headcheese this weekend because I bought a pig and it had a head. Sure, I asked the guy at the meat locker not to grind it up, and I asked for the feet as well, but only because they’re part of the pig. Unlike restaurant food, which a chef can create from disparate ingredients and sources, headcheese comes from a tradition rooted in seasonality and culture. In cultures where families still raise a pig each year, headcheese is still being made. Look to any of the poorer European countries, from Moldova and Serbia to rural districts of wealthier countries like Italy and France, and you’ll find headcheese and its local variants. And headcheese isn’t eaten as penance, either; it’s a delectable way to get at the flavorful bits of head meat – imagine a concentrated combination of pulled pork and pot roast.
A head, with the brains removed, is soaked in a salt brine overnight, along with the pig’s feet. Next day the brine is dumped and the meat is cooked at a low simmer for several hours, along with bay leaves, peppercorns, juniper berries, and typical soup stock ingredients like carrots, celery, and onions. When the meat is fall-from-the-bone tender, remove it from the heat and let it cool. When you can handle the meat, separate it from the bones and fat. Strain the stock and boil to reduce by about a third to a half. The feet add huge amounts of gelatin to the stock, which makes the traditional aspic of headcheese a breeze to make.
Because headcheese is refrigerated, it’s important to season it heavily, so the flavors come through the cold. I added salt, marjoram, and re-hydrated a quarter-cup of wild mushrooms. Headcheese in many places call for vinegar, bringing to mind hasenfeffer and jugged hare. I used a saucier and kept reducing the already-rich stock, tasting as I went to ensure a strong flavor. I then put the meat into a Pyrex glass loaf and poured the flavored stock until it covered the meat, covered it with plastic wrap, and put it in the icebox. We ate it yesterday (and today) at lunch with a slice of bread and a gob of mustard.
There’s no reason headcheese couldn’t be warmed up so the aspic melts, and served with egg noodles. In fact, if you’ve eaten rillettes in a French bistro, you’re pretty close to headcheese, except that headcheese doesn’t have as much fat as the rillettes.
My guess is that headcheese is still popular where pigs are butchered on the farm because the process is so well understood. American consumers are suspicious of headcheese because our meat comes from huge factories and we don’t know anything about them. So, while Americans will buy millions of pounds of ground hamburger from unknown sources, few of us will eat headcheese. Is it because of the name or our suspicion of meat factories? If you know where your pig was raised and slaughtered, headcheese is an obvious addition to your repertoire of pork dishes.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It looks just like what my grandpa used to make and enjoy with a slice of my grandma's delicious homemade bread spread with lard. He loved it.

  3. Hum ,head cheese,if Ng recall we had it before ?it made nice banh mi sandwiches.
    A pig sale for 3 dollars on St Laurent market .It is not big ,and not much fat

  4. You don't need the feet to make a good coppa di testa -- there is PLENTY of collagen in the head to bind the "cheese," which, BTW, gets it name because "cheese" in Ye Olde England was anything semi-solid that was molded, ie, your casserole pan.

    Skip the feet next time and use them for a pot pie or for cassoulet. The feet-less headcheese will be more tender and less springy -- the best coppa di testa IMHO is just barely held together by the collagen: Warmed by the heat of your mouth, it melts into a flavorful broth.

    Anyway, those are my $0.02.

    -- Hank

  5. Hank, Thanks for the etymology of headcheese perhaps it should be re-named "headmold," a sure-fire way to win more converts! It was obvious that the feet weren't needed when the stock gelled almost before it cooled.

  6. Patrick, after reading this I think are we from the same kitchen? Where did our paths/ingredients go their separate ways??? I love you anyway, but yuck on the headcheese!
    Love Mary