Brawn (Headcheese)

A splendid dish, a slowly cooked pig’s head, the flesh pulled from the skull and set in its own jelly; sliced thinly, a fine lunch.  You can use the pig’s ears to make the Sorrel, Chicory, and Crispy Ear Salad (page 43), which is an ideal accompaniment.

I’ve been putting this update off for a little while.  So why stop procrastinating now?

Reader Christopher Pepe shot me an e-mail:

So I’ve been following your site for a while and recently picked up The
Whole Beast.  This weekend we had a little party celebrating the less
celebrated parts of animals and I made a few things from the cookbook.  I
thought you might be interested in seeing it.

Corned Tongue (reubens)

Brawn

Bath Chaps

Mayonnaise

Stuffed Trotters

Prep pics (some ‘graphic’) are the last pictures here.

I also made the Tripe and Onions but don’t have a finished picture online
yet since it took a lot longer to cook than I expected.  Looking forward to
your next culinary adventure.

I think Christopher did a fantastic job, and on top of that, he found some willing dinner guests!  Color me impressed.  Now, for my own attempt at making brawn.

I’m not exactly sure why, but at various points in the year my local megamart stocks frozen hogs heads for only eight dollars.  They remove most of the hair from the head and clean them very well.  I picked up two they were so cheap.  This fella was so big he just barely fit into my stock pot.

The usual stock vegetables and herbs were added to the pot, along with the zest of a few lemons, a healthy splash of red wine vinegar, and …

… some pig trotters!  The extra fat and collagen will help later to make the stock liquor set.

I brought the water to a boil, then reduced the heat to a gentle simmer and left it that way for a couple of hours.  Eventually the flesh began pulling away from the skull, which meant the head had finished cooking. Public service notice for those of you attempting to make your own brawn:  The stock will be INCREDIBLY HOT. So don’t scald yourself like I did while you fish the hog head and trotters out of the pot.

Once I got done yelling and running around the kitchen holding my hands, I removed the vegetables and herbs from the stock, strained it and seasoned it with salt.  The stock went back onto the burner to reduce down and intensify the gelatin content.

As the stock reduced, I picked through the trotters and flesh for meat and peeled the tongue.  I’d like to take a moment to mention that in the recipe, Mr. Henderson instructs us to go about “picking flesh”.  I took that to just mean the meat, not the skin and the fat.  Oh, what a mistake that was.  You’ll see what I mean shortly.

Thinking that I was on course, I lined a loaf pan with saran wrap, filled it with the meat bits I had found and then poured in just enough stock.  I picked up and slammed the loaf pan on the counter top a few times to force any trapped air bubbles out.  The pan was then placed in the fridge to set.

Well, it looks like headcheese, right?  Various random meat shapes all floating in a gelatinous environment.  There was only two problems:

One, the chunks of meat were too big, so when I tried to make a cut, whole pieces of meat would just rip right out of the gelatin, still attached to the knife.  That brings up the second point, the stock had not been reduced down enough, so the gelatin was very weak.  This is what I’d call a complete failure.

I ended up hitting the internet for more information on how to make brawn.  While there isn’t exactly a bevy of headcheese info out there on the ‘tubes, I gleaned enough from the few links I did find to set me back on track.  With the help of my lovely, understanding wife, we began tearing apart the loaf of failcheese and reworking it.  All of the gelatin was placed back into a pot for reducing, including the left over stock I had saved.  I had also saved all of the skin and fat from the hog head for use in other things, so that too was revisited.  As my wife removed the flesh from the pig trotters, I began chopping it and the fat and meat into much smaller chunks.

Our efforts were not in vain, as attempt 2.0 looked much more like the pictures of brawn I found on the internet.  I can confirm that this version was indeed sliceable, and the gelatin held firm.

Never having eaten brawn before, I was expecting something transcendent.  Pig meat with little nuggets of fat here and there should be right up my alley.  For whatever reason, it’s just not to my liking.  Oh, everything tasted just fine; I had added enough salt, so seasoning wasn’t an issue.  It was the texture that threw me for a loop.  Add that to the realization that I’d much rather make Pig’s Cheek and Tongue (which I did with the other hogs head I bought) and brawn loses it’s luster.  Maybe I’ll give it a go again later on.

One down, eighty eight to go.

15 thoughts on “Brawn (Headcheese)

  1. It’s always cool to see someone else’s rendition of head cheese. We’ve made the Italian take on it (coppa di testa) a few times, and I really like it – although I could definitely see it not being to everyone’s taste.

    One thing to try, if you haven’t already, is to take a thin slice, put it on a plate, and warm it until the gelatin just melts. A fantastic recipe in this vein is Mario Batali’s “Warm Testa with Waxy Potatoes” from the Babbo cookbook.

  2. Dude, you were only halfway done. The BEST thing to do with brawn is to bread it with chestnut flour, egg, and panko breadcrumbs, then fry that puppy! Crispy-fatty-salty-yummy, with just a hint of sweet from the chestnut flour…

  3. Mike, I’ll have to find a coppa di testa recipe to mull over. Next time I make headcheese (which I’ve already promised myself will happen, thanks to Hank) I’ll give the anything by Batali a go once… or twice.

    HANK! Dude, congrats on the huge Field & Stream article! I’m going to pick up a copy today before I head home. And darn it, now I HAVE to make brawn again. You continue to amaze me by taking things just that much higher. I’d have never considered frying a slice!

  4. Serve it in a 1/2 to 3/4 inch slice, chilled. Score the top very lightly with a sharp knife ever 1/2 inch or so an pour on a small amount of good vinegar. Serve with cornichons and rough ground mustard.

    I had heard my late boss describe this dish in the 70s at NYC’s Cafe des Artiste (spelling may be slightly off, but check their website, the murals are something else), so when they had it on the menu when my wife and I were there once we tried it. Wonderful.

  5. I’m starting to think I need to find a place around Austin that serves brawn so I can try “the real deal.” Thanks for the suggestion TAOTP!

  6. Just found your blog, and I’ve been reading through the archives, so much fun! I’ve thumbed my way through this book many a time, but I’ve never gotten around to actually buying a copy. Spending a few hours reading your blog has cured me of my indecision.

    I’m French-Canadian; my dad grew up on a farm (plus does a lot of hunting), and my mom is an incredibly resourceful cook. Add all those together, and ‘nose-to-tail’ eating has been part of our family dinners since I can remember. Some of the things you’ve cooked (tongue, heart, headcheese) are things I’m familiar with and love eating, and some (spleen!) I’ve never even thought of trying. So thanks for making it seem so easy — now I have no excuse.

    Back to the subect: headcheese. I’m a huge fan of French-Canadian-style headcheese, which is pretty much exactly like the above, except for a few crucial flavouring switchups. We don’t use any vinegar or lemon (actually, whenever I’ve tried non-FC headcheese, I’ve found the sourness really offputting). And we add a good spoonful of quatre-epices, plus a little extra ground cloves, to the stock at the very end, just before pouring it into the mold. I like it on hot buttered toast.

  7. Hello! Thank you for the kind comments, and it sounds like the cookbook is right up your alley. You were sure lucky to have so many options growing up. I need to buy some more spleens, thanks for reminding me. Oh, and the French-Canadian-style headcheese sounds like I’d enjoy it quite a bit. I think I’ll follow your suggestions next time I get the chance to make brawn again. :)

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  10. How long can you store this in the fridge?
    More importantly, can it be frozen? I just made a large quantity!
    Thank you!

  11. Hi everyone,here in the UK,the only way to eat Brawn is thinly sliced with ENGLISH mustard,and brown bread.Hardly anyone knows what it is nowadays, but I’m old enough to know, and along with other REAL foods like Tripe and tongue it’s delicious.

  12. Oh, and I’m also from England and as kids we would eat it sliced and spread on bread. Then when we moved to Canada my Mum would make it and serve it with french fries. YUM!!!

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  14. A very interesting and well presented article, its good to see they are others out there who believe in real food.
    I made it using Hugh Fearnley’s recipe UK and I think it was a success. Now I’m going to have a go at frying it. I think we owe it to the animals we eat to use every bit and stop taking them for granted, our fore fathers did and there lived a much healthier lifestyle.

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