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What is Head Cheese? Unveiling the Mystery of This Traditional Delicacy

Editorial Team
Updated May 16, 2024
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How Long will Meat Stay Fresh in the Refrigerator?

Dive into the savory world of charcuterie with a traditional European delicacy that might surprise you—head cheese. Despite its name, head cheese is not a dairy product. Instead, it's a seasoned, jellied meat concoction crafted from the flesh of a pig's head, and sometimes from calves, sheep, or cows. Head cheese is a testament to the historical "nose-to-tail" eating philosophy, ensuring no part of the animal goes to waste. Often molded into a sausage-like shape or a terrine, head cheese is savored cold or at room temperature, with its gelatinous texture holding the rich, herby flavors. For those curious about what is head cheese, it's a unique blend of culinary tradition and resourceful cooking that offers a glimpse into the past and a taste that endures.

To prepare head cheese, the cook must procure the head of a freshly slaughtered pig or calf. The head must be carefully washed and scraped clean. If the head is a pig’s, the bristles are shaved or plucked. If another animal, such as a calf or cow, the head is skinned. The head is split or quartered and the eyes are removed and usually discarded. The ears are removed and the ear canals cleaned of wax.

To make head cheese, the split or quartered head is then simmered in a large stockpot until the meat is so tender that it falls off the bone. The skull is removed from the cooking liquid and allowed to cool enough so that it can be handled. The meat is then picked off the skull and chopped.

Seasonings and sometimes vegetables are added to the chopped meat. The cooking liquid is strained and added to the chopped meat. The cooled meat mixture is then poured into pans or molds and refrigerated until set. The collagen that has leached into the cooking liquid from the marrow and cartilage of the head will gel the stock upon cooling. When cold and solidified, the head cheese is removed from the mold, sliced, and served.

The cooking process is where head cheeses diverge according to culture and taste. Some cooks add a pig’s foot along with the skull for added collagen. Ingredients vary by culture and region, thus altering the color of the head cheese accordingly. In Southern Louisiana, in the United States, head cheese, also known as souse, is traditionally flavored with vinegar and hot sauce. Vinegary Pennsylvania Dutch souse is also made with the addition of a pig’s foot, and occasionally the tongue of the animal.

Germany’s presskopf features vinegar or pickles and may also contain beef tongue. Denmark’s sylte is spiced with thyme, allspice, and bay leaves and served with pickled beets and mustard. Head cheese in England is called brawn, and in Scotland, it goes by the name potted heid. In Latin America, you can find it on the menu as queso de cabeza, and in Mexican markets, look for queso de puerco. Head cheese is also available in Hungary, disznósajt; Croatia, tlačenica; and Estonia, sült. The latter variety of head cheese often features the addition of green vegetables and carrots.

Modern cooks who wish to produce their own head cheese but lack ready access to a fresh pig’s head can substitute pork shoulder and unflavored gelatin. Also, varieties of head cheese are made that contain no red meat but instead are made with chicken and fish.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is head cheese made of?

Head cheese is a meat product made from various parts of the head of a calf, pig, or sheep, such as the brain, eyes, tongue, and ears. The meat is cooked in a flavorful broth and then compressed into a loaf or jelly. It can be sliced and served as a cold cut, used as a spread, or used in other recipes like sandwiches.

What are the flavor and texture of head cheese?

Head cheese has a distinct texture, is firm and gelatinous, and has a combination of savory and sweet flavors. It has a mix of flavors from the different meats used in the recipe and is often seasoned with herbs and spices like pepper, allspice, thyme, and parsley. Its taste is similar to potted meat, but with a more intense flavor.

Is head cheese a healthy food?

Head cheese is high in cholesterol and saturated fat and is not typically considered a healthy food. It is a source of protein, but it should be consumed in moderation, accompanied by other healthy foods.

How should head cheese be stored?

Head cheese should be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, tightly wrapped in plastic wrap or aluminum foil to prevent it from drying out. It can also be frozen for up to three months.

How is head cheese served?

Head cheese can be served cold or at room temperature as a cold cut, part of a larger dish, or used in recipes such as soups and stews. It is often paired with crackers, bread, or vegetables, and can be used as a spread for sandwiches or as a topping for salads.

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Editorial Team
By Editorial Team
Our Editorial Team, made up of seasoned professionals, prioritizes accuracy and quality in every piece of content. With years of experience in journalism and publishing, we work diligently to deliver reliable and well-researched content to our readers.

Discussion Comments

By anon947830 — On Apr 27, 2014

In the UK we call this Brawn.

By anon322535 — On Feb 27, 2013

If you're going to eat meat, show some respect to the animal you killed by eating all of it -- plus, headcheese is just tasty.

Not to go on a rant here, but if you want the pleasure of enjoying meat, you should probably kill, gut, and skin something once in awhile.

Wild game just tastes better and reminds you of all the work that goes into your steak (this from a member of a family of butchers).

By serenesurface — On Jan 26, 2013

Head cheese is not as popular anymore, but it used to be very common during America's early years. Poverty was more back then and people couldn't afford to throw anything away. So they used as many parts of the animal as possible. This how many dishes that contain animals' head or intestines or stomach lining came about.

By donasmrs — On Jan 26, 2013

@anon70810-- Many do include the brain. There isn't one type of head cheese, there are different types. Different people include different things in it but most will include the brain.

Head cheese is nutritious because it usually contains parts of the animal we usually don't consume. These parts are often the parts that are rich in collagen, essential fats and protein.

However, it's a bad idea to eat too much head cheese, especially head cheese with brain. Brain is very high in cholesterol, it's mainly a saturated fat. So those who suffer from high cholesterol beware!

By turquoise — On Jan 25, 2013

The picture looks delicious but I have no idea how people make head cheese at home. I could never skin an animal's head, cut it up and remove the eyeballs. Yuck! I don't know how people do that.

I wouldn't mind buying head cheese from the store though.

By anon306451 — On Nov 29, 2012

Where can I purchase this in Ireland? I'm intrigued. Slightly disgusted but at the same time, oddly fascinated. I like pate and by the descriptions some have posed, it sounds quite similar.

By anon285829 — On Aug 17, 2012

For those who have never tried it, and think "oh that's nasty!" You should really try it. It tastes like several different kinds of prepared pork, all in one big bite. Nothing is chewy or has a weird texture. Just nice soft meat.

The only weird thing to get used to is that is falls apart when sliced thin. So I wouldn't recommend slicing thin for a sandwich. Maybe 1/8th of an inch minimum. I like to slice a piece and eat it on a cracker. So delicious!

By anon245494 — On Feb 05, 2012

I just had some Saag's Bavarian Head Cheese bought at a supermarket and found it very tasty. I love animals and would rather we were all vegetarians, but (a) we probably couldn't produce enough vegetables and grain to feed 7 billion people (and growing), at least not in any nutritious, protein-rich way; and (2) we are evolved as omnivores.

Meantime the use of all the parts of the animal for food does more honor to the slaughtered animal than just trashing bits of it, in my opinion.

By anon242425 — On Jan 23, 2012

I eat meat and all, but that's gross.

By anon146976 — On Jan 27, 2011

I love head cheese. Boars Head does a great job of making it. more people should try it.

By anon125007 — On Nov 08, 2010

I used to sit and eat headcheese with my Grandpa. He was German and the Germans loved it. Yes, they never wasted a thing! However, I think of it today and wonder how I ever ate it as a child. I guess if it was good enough for Grandpa, it was good enough for me. Susan K

By anon84848 — On May 17, 2010

oh so good! the name really throws the mindset off, but it really is a delicacy to be had.

By anon79651 — On Apr 23, 2010

anon71537: Guess you are a vegetarian. You don't eat meat at all? Here in southern louisiana we eat meat, and we eat all the meat. We don't kill a cow or pig, cut a steak out and throw away the rest. now can you imagine that?

By anon71537 — On Mar 18, 2010

This sounds so trifling. How can people eat this? I can't even imagine cutting the head off of a beautiful animal that didn't do anything to me. It's disgusting. But hey, you know how it is.

By anon70810 — On Mar 16, 2010

Head cheese then would include brain, right?

By anon44540 — On Sep 08, 2009

Publix deli sells head cheese made by Boars Head brand.

By anon42751 — On Aug 23, 2009

where can I purchase in georgia?

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Editorial Team

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