Many people absolutely love hog’s head cheese, but they have no clue exactly what part of the pig they’re eating.
They just know one thing: It tastes great!
My dad grew up poor on the farm. Come late winter, one of the fatted pigs was harvested and nothing went to waste. After tying down and slowly bleeding the pig while collecting the blood, the entire pig was scraped of its hair and the head was used for hog’s head cheese. If the pig was was killed too quickly and bled out too fast, the meat would lose quality.
Life on the farm definitely wasn’t for the weak-minded.
Scraping is a grueling process where boiling water, towels and tools have to be tirelessly worked to remove all the hair before cutting the pig up. The scraped hog’s skin is the main ingredient to the gelatin, where the pork meat is suspended in the finished hog’s head cheese.
The other parts of the gelatin come from the feet, joints, tail, nipples, tendons, ligaments, ears and nose, plus and all the parts surrounding the face. (Basically, any part of the pig that was slimy and had no meat or lard was used to make the gelatin.)
The eyes and brain were taken out of the head, which would then be boiled. After cooking, it was picked apart to separate the meat from any gelatinous tissue before everything but the skull got thrown back into the pot to make the cheese.
If you aren’t grossed out by now, read on and I’ll explain how to make this centuries-old delicacy the modern way.
Recently, I got together with my brother and my dad to film us making the old family recipe - but without using the head.
At our big family gatherings, his hog’s head cheese is always one of the things everyone looks forward to experiencing. It took nearly all day and my dad, as always, took each step with meticulous detail. He didn’t measure anything except the weight of the skins and meat, so this is a recipe cooked by feel and experience.
We started with 12 pounds of pre-scraped hog skins purchased from the grocery store for around $1.25 per pound to form the gelatin. It’s always better to have more skins than meat - and we had a bunch extra.
My dad bought Boston butt roasts from the store a while back when they went on sale for $1.59 per pound. He froze the roasts, then defrosted them in the fridge a few days in advance. About four to six large Boston butt roasts are typically used for one large pot of cheese - four roasts were perfect for our recipe.
The pure skins and shoulder meat this recipe used gave a clean and firm look and taste to the finished product - versus the “mushy” versions that you can buy in stores.
Wild pork meat can be substituted for the store-bought pork, but my dad didn’t think the wild skins would be as tasty as domesticated pig. One day I’ll scrape one of those nasty black feral hogs to see if the wild skin’s flavor is similar.
My brother brought along ten packs of green onions and some seasonings, and the cooking began. Dad cautioned us to never eat thawed hog’s head cheese out of the freezer: The thawed gelatin has a horrible taste and texture until it’s remelted over the stove on low heat and re-firmed in the refrigerator. At that point, it’s just as good as the day it was made.
We removed as much fat from the top of the skin and meat stock as we could. Stores don’t usually waste anything, so they stir in this extra fat once the cheese begins to firm up, giving it a mushy, greasy texture and, in my opinion, a worse taste.
After a relaxing day of rehashing hunting and fishing stories while stirring pots, chopping meat and getting covered in pig parts, the final product was set into the fridge that evening to firm up. But we couldn’t wait that long for a taste, so we put a small bowl in the freezer to harden more quickly so we could give it a try that evening. And wow, was it good!
As a health nut, I came up with my own recipe using the wild pork that I harvest for the meat and plain Knox gelatin to create the gel instead of skin. It is much easier and quicker to make, and many people prefer the taste of my nearly fat-free version with half the calories.
Knox gelatin is a low-calorie, low-fat and carbohydrate-free product, making it an extremely healthy alternative made from amino acids, animal bones and by-products.
The 12 pounds of pork skins we boiled contained more than 22,000 calories and nearly 2,000 grams of fat (77-percent of its calories are from fat), but it does gel better and get firmer than the Knox gelatin. To give a comparison, pork skins have a similar nutritional value to poultry skins.
The wild hog meat averages less than 1 gram of fat per ounce, and has 56-percent fewer calories on average than the more tender Boston butt roasts, which contains 5 grams of fat per ounce (59-percent of its calories are from fat).
However, some of this skin and Boston butt fat is able to be skimmed off the top of the stocks and finished product. When making it with Knox and wild pork, there is hardly any floating fat to skim.The next weekend, I made a batch of this healthier recipe, which is described along with more detailed instructions of my dad’s recipe, in the attached video.
Here are the main steps to my dad’s version:
-One large seafood boiling pot is needed, as well as a bunch of bowls and pans.
-Start by adding pork skins to the pot and bring them to a low boil while covered until they are tender. Make sure not to burn any by stirring occasionally. This will take about 90 to 120 minutes, and the skins can be easily sliced with a spoon when ready.
-While boiling the skins, cut the outer layer of fat off of the thawed Boston butts and slice each into six large pieces, leaving the shoulder bone in a chunk.
-Take the skins out of the pot and cool until warm.
-Pour the skin stock into a separate bowl, and skim any impurities and fat off the stock’s surface several times.
-Put the meat into the pot, cover with water and bring to a low boil while covered until tender and meat begins to fall off the bone. Be sure to stir occasionally to keep any pieces from burning (about 90-120 minutes.)
-While meat is boiling, cut the nipples from the skins then grind the skins in a grinder or food processor.
-After the meat is boiled, strain, cool and then cut into small 1- to 2-inch chunks, taking out as much fat as possible.
-Pour the meat stock into a separate bowl and skim the surface several times.
- Weigh the meat and skins, then use 1 pound of ground skins for every 2 pounds of prepared meat.
- Add most of the skin stock back to the pot, and bring to low boil (we used about 8 quarts.) Do not use the stock from the bottom of the bowl, and skim the top before using.
-Add in the ground skins - we used 8.5 pounds for the 17 pounds of meat we had. -Add in the meat - 2 pounds for every pound of skins.
-Add in 1-2 quarts of meat stock until meat is covered by a few inches.
-After it reaches a low boil and the skins fully melt (about 20 minutes), it’s seasoning time. Do not over-season. When re-melted, you can always add more seasoning later. We included salt, black pepper, red pepper, Kitchen Bouquet browning sauce, hot sauce of choice and liquid smoke.
-Personally, I like more seasonings so I used everything mentioned above, plus: Stubbs Pork Seasoning, Mrs. Dash table blend, sriracha sauce, garlic powder, onion powder, diced jarred jalapeños and minced garlic, chopped yellow onions and bell pepper.
-Continue the low boil covered, stirring every 10 minutes until the meat tenderizes further for about 1-2 hours. (The meat should be half-stringy and half-chunky, as several inches of water will boil out and stock will be just barely covering before it begins to thicken slightly.)
-Turn off the fire, taste the mix and re-season as needed.
-Stir in chopped green onions - we use a lot.
-Cool down for about an hour.
-Poor contents into pans holding 2- to 3-inches of the mix.
-After it reaches room temperature, put it in refrigerator and leave overnight.
-Scrape off any fat that forms and rises to the top.
-Slice thin and enjoy.
-In small blocks, the hog’s head cheese will last frozen for many years. It’s perfect to serve at breakfast melted into grits or as a Cajun delicacy at parties with jalapeños, olives or cheddar cheese on a cracker - or in my case, with low-fat cheese and a jalapeño on a gluten-free rice thin.