Offal of the Week: Hog's Head
If it's Friday, it must be Offal of the Week! Brought to you by Ryan Adams, author of the blog Nose to Tail at Home, each week we highlight a different part of the animal that you've always wanted to make, but were afraid to ask your butcher for. This week: Hog's Head.
Thanks to the proliferation of supermarkets, it's easy for people to forget that the meat they buy in the little styrofoam containers at one point was actually attached to a living, breathing animal. The fourth wall comes crashing down the very second you start working with a decapitated head, but it's so very worth facing that reality. With just one hog's head, you'll find yourself standing in the middle of a playground of culinary opportunities.
When cooking with a hog's head, it's important to take stock of all the possibilities that open up to you: Not only are there two wonderful but tough cheeks that are laden with copious amounts of fat, but two ears, a tongue and if you care to work at chipping through the skull, a brain. On top of all of those goodies, a boiled head will result in a massively flavorsome stock filled with plenty of gelatin. One word of warning though: I've worked with a fair share of pig noggins, and once the flesh starts falling from the bone it's tough to ignore the fact that you're dealing with an animal's skull. It's the most gristly chore I've ever tackled in the kitchen.
The most well known use of a hog's bean is boiling it for a very long time with a few trotters, and then wrapping it all up tightly to make a type of charcuterie known as headcheese, a.k.a. brawn, a.k.a. coppa di testa. The currently very restaurant-trendy scrapple, a similar invention originating with the Pennsylvania Dutch, incorporates cornmeal to make an amazing meatloaf-esque dish. Beyond headcheese, which incorporates pretty much the entirety of the head, there are plenty of options: Fergus Henderson has a recipe that shreds the boiled cheek and tongue meat for use in a salad that is then topped with crispy fried slices of pig ear. Thomas Keller goes one step further by removing all of the pig's flesh from the skull, stuffing it, braising the whole thing then frying slices and serving them with gribiche sauce. (Back when Carol Blymire was working her way through the French Laundry cookbook, she ended up shooting a short TV pilot that featured this recipe.)
Pig heads can be found in various ethnic markets—Latino and Asian are your best bets—or your always handy local butcher. You might also try checking out the nearby farmers market, though the odds of stumbling upon a freshly-butchered head just staring at you are a bit slim, so you might want to order ahead [zing! –Ed.]. I've run into some farms that specialize in heirloom hogs and they're always willing to dole out the good stuff, though it can be pricey.
Look for a whole head with all the bells and whistles—ears and cheeks, of course, and ideally the tongue as well—and smooth skin that may or may not still have hair on it. If you do happen to buy a hirsute hog head, you can shave it bare with a disposable razor or burn the offending whiskers away.
It's worth the effort to tackle this head on. If you're strong enough to look it in the eye, here are a few recipes to get you on your way:
Hank Shaw's Coppa di Testa
Crisp Roasted Pig's Head
Thomas Keller's Braised Stuffed Pig’s Head with Sauce Gribiche