Head cheese is not cheese at all, and these days it’s not always made from meat simmered off the head of a pig. A more accurate and appetizing way to think of head cheese is simply that it’s a cold cut made from tender, fatty pork.
Head cheese isn’t hard to make at home, especially if you have a pressure cooker and use pig’s feet instead of a pig’s head. A pressure cooker completes the simmering process in 1 hour, rather than 3 or 4. And pig’s feet are easier to find than a whole pig’s head (and there’s a little less of a gross-out factor if you’re squeamish). Hispanic supermarkets almost always sell pig’s feet, or you can special order them from a butcher or local farm.
Pig’s feet are inexpensive and the perfect addition not only to head cheese, but to any stock. The skin, joints and bones release tons of healthy collagen, giving the simmering liquid texture and helping it firm up when chilled.
When cooking head cheese at home, you can control the texture and flavor, making it meatier or more gelatinous, seasoned heavily with spices or hardly at all. The head cheese in this recipe photo is light on meat, resulting in a smoother melt-in-your-mouth texture. Most people, however, prefer a meatier mix, and that’s what you’ll get if you add all of the meat from the recipe below.
This recipe for head cheese takes some time but very little effort. Mostly, it’s about simmering and refrigerating. For some, head cheese is a nostalgic treat. For others, it’s an adventurous and surprisingly tasty way to embrace gelatinous food.
Time in the Kitchen: 1 hour of simmering, plus 8 hours of refrigeration
4 to 6 pig’s feet
2 pounds of a bone-in, inexpensive cut of pork (ribs, roast, un-smoked ham hocks) (900 g)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar (60 ml)
Salt and pepper
Wash the pig’s feet, making sure to remove any hair that remains by scraping it off with a knife.
Put the feet and the other cut of pork in a pressure cooker with the vinegar, a generous pinch of salt and pepper and just enough cold water to cover everything. You can also add bay leaves, peppercorns, allspice and other spices to the pot if you like.
Cook in the pressure cooker for 1 hour. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, then simmer in a pot until the meat is fork-tender, about 3 to 4 hours.
Strain the solids (meat, fat, bones) from the liquid (save the liquid!)
Put the solids on a plate or cutting board to cool and then separate all the meat and fatty bits from the bones and chop it up fine. If the really fatty pieces aren’t appetizing you can throw some out, but don’t go overboard or you’ll lose all the good stuff.
Generously season the meat with salt and pepper to taste.
Add as much of the cut up meat as desired back into the broth and pour it into a 9 x 13 cake pan.
The mixture can also be poured into terrine or loaf pans filled 1/2 to 3/4 full.
Loosely cover the mixture of meat and broth and let the head cheese firm up in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours.
After the head cheese has set, use a spoon to scrap off and discard any white fat that has come to the surface. At this point the head cheese is done, but if the texture is too soft for your liking, then put it back into a pot and simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Return the mixture to the refrigerator to cool and set again.
When it is cooled and set, cut the head cheese into slices or squares and serve.
A pressure cooker extracts more gelatin in a shorter amount of time than simmering in a pot does. If you’re not using a pressure cooker for this recipe it’s very likely you’ll have to simmer the mixture again after the first refrigeration.
Whether or not a pressure cooker is used, the head cheese can always be firmed up by adding powdered gelatin to the broth and meat mixture before refrigerating it. The head cheese in the photo has had powdered gelatin added. However, if you use enough pigs feet (make sure to use at least 4 feet) then adding powdered gelatin shouldn’t be necessary.