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September 23

What is Head Cheese? A Surprisingly Delicious Treat

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Some foods do not have names that accurately describe what they are made of, and head cheese is undoubtedly in this category. This surprisingly succulent pork cold cut is an Eastern European favorite with crackers, sauces, and wine.  Keep reading to find out what it’s made of and how to make your own. 

What is Head Cheese?


This sliced charcuterie famously beloved by Maya Angelou is made from stewed pork scraps simmered for several hours with aromatic herbs, minced veggies, and spices. The meat almost always comes from the pig's head (almost always with eyes, brain, and ears removed) although feet and organ meat are also common.

Though originally from eastern Europe, the popularity of this tasty delicacy spread to the southern United States, where it was long a deli staple and is now in danger of disappearing. It is safe for dairy-avoiders since it contains no cheese at all! In fact, head cheese is a sliceable cold cut made from scraps of pork. 

Often eaten with crackers alongside other carved meats, head cheese is an unexpected savory treat. After several hours of cooking around 194°F (90°C), the bones and connective tissues release enough gelatin that separated meats and spices will solidify upon cooling.  

Usually, the mixture is packed into beef bung (lower intestine), pork stomachs, or another mold to be shaped and sliced upon cooling. This type of food is known as an aspic: a meat jelly set in a mold. Most head cheese aficionados prefer the sliced aspic cold or at room temperature, spread on a cracker or on a sandwich with a schmear of spicy mustard. 

What Does Head Cheese Taste Like?


This cold cut is incredibly porky and flavorful.  Cuts from the head are often described as bacon-like in taste, and the texture is tender and silky, nearly melting after the collagen breaks down. Head cheese can be prepared plain, with only meat gelatinized in water, with simple flavors such as salt or vinegar (a souse), or with complex combinations of herbs and vegetables that confer flavors like garlic or thyme--chef’s choice!

Head Cheese Varieties


Souse is head cheese prepared after the meat has been first pickled in vinegar. Caribbean chefs use lime juice instead of vinegar, and they add extra water so that the aspic is thinned to a cold broth.

Tongue head cheese is just what it sounds like--this is head cheese that incorporates meat from the tongue.  Traditional head cheese includes meat from many different cuts, including the tongue, jowls, head, heart, snout, and skin; however, tongue meat takes longer to cook. Also, the bitter outer skin must be removed, so some head cheese recipes do not include the tongue meat. 

Blood head cheese includes blood from the hog.  This gives it a darker color, a rich flavor, and a higher nutritional value than traditional head cheese.

Sulz is a style of head cheese made from pigs’ feet instead of head parts, either with the bone in or with the bone removed for easier slicing.

Head Cheese Recipes


This one from Elliot Homestead is a straightforward. It's a minimal recipe with few aromatics, but it offers a great start for beginners out there. 

This one from The Healthy Foodie is a lot more advanced, involved with more aromatics and more steps.  

Frequently Asked Questions


What is Hog Head Cheese?

Hog’s head cheese is the same thing as head cheese.  Because it is made from pig parts, it is often called Hog’s head cheese for emphasis.

What is Souse?

Souse is head cheese in which the meat has first been pickled in vinegar.

Why is Head Cheese Called an Aspic?

An aspic is any type of meat set in a savory jelly.  The jelly could be made from exogenous gelatin, just like sweet Jell-O, but more often, its gelatin comes from collagen in the pork connective tissue that breaks down as the meat boils.  The word “aspic” is of Old French provenance.  Its original definition referred to an “asp” or snake, and aspic dishes take this meaning from their resemblance to a snake in texture, appearance, and reptilian propensity for jiggling. 

Concluding


Don’t be put off by bad branding! The savory, bacony, flavor and velvety textures of head cheese are ample reward for those brave enough to look past the admittedly disturbing name. If you have a good thermometer, it’s also incredibly sustainable and nutritious fare to prepare at home. 

Leave a comment below, if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

Cheers!

Caitlin 


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About the author

Caitlin is a Ph.D student and chocolate researcher at Colorado State University. Her research in the Food Science program focuses on chocolate fermentation (that’s right, it’s a fermented food!) and small-batch post-harvest processing techniques. When she is not acting in her capacity as resident chocolate guru, she researches other fermented foods and beverages like beer, sausage, and natto. Caitlin was drawn to fermented foods while living in rural Spain for six years, where she was exposed to traditional, time-honored practices of food preservation. At home, she practices Bollywood dance for fun and is followed everywhere by two small pet rabbits.

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