Head cheese is not actually cheese, but a jellied meat dish made from the head of a pig or calf. Occasionally, a sheep’s or cow’s head may be used. Head cheese typically takes the form of a large sausage and is served sliced as a cold cut. Alternatively, it may be made in a mold or pan and served as a terrine. It is usually eaten slightly chilled or at room temperature, to prevent the gelatin from melting.
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.