Cooking a pig’s head
written by Colour it Green
Most downsizers work to the principle of ‘everything but the oink’ when it comes to eating a pig, and this includes cooking the head. It makes good economical sense, seems the honourable thing to do if you kill for your food to use everything, but more importantly, there are some really great dishes to be made from those ‘throw away’ parts. You can ask for the head to be left on, when you arrange for your home grown pigs to go to slaughter, ask for the head if ordering a whole or half pig, and pig’s heads are fairly cheap when bought from the butcher.
When it comes to dealing with a pig’s head for the first time it can be daunting, but it is not as bad as you would imagine.
Most of the meat on a pig’s head is in the cheeks and around the neck, so just using the cheeks – or chaps, is a good place to start.
Lay the head on its side and make a cut following the line of the mouth to about an inch under the ear, and continue until you reach the neck end. Work the knife following the jaw bone at the back of the head, then carefully pare the meat from the bone – the meaty cushion of muscle sits in a hollow so carefully work the knife in so as to keep all of that with the rest of the chap. You should end up with a roughly triangular piece of pork. Cut any left over meat from the bone and around the neck end and put this in your scrap pot for mincing or making into sausagemeat.
There are many recipes available for cooking pig’s cheeks, slow braising is ideal, and the recipes usually mean just that meaty cushion, which you can opt to cut away from the rest of the chap. If you are just going to use the cushion part of the pig's cheek, you should allow one to two cheeks per person - so you might need a few pig's heads! Put the rest of the meat into your scrap pot.
Alternatively you can cook the whole piece. How big the whole cheek is will vary with the size and breed of pig, these ones shown weighed in at about a kilo each. Use a blowtorch to remove any remaining hairs. You can roast this as a whole piece as you would a piece of belly, we prefer to make Bath chaps, which are a cured cut.
325g soft dark brown sugar
3 L of water
(nb we don’t use salt petre but it can be added if preferred)
1 stick of celery
1 dessertspoon of dried mixed herbs or a bouquet garni
Make the brine up and allow to cool. How much you need depends on the shape of your brine tub, we usually make two batches, to cover two chaps and ears. Put the chaps in a large tub. Cut the ears from the head and clean and de-hair them and put them in the tub too. Weigh the meat down with non porous plates. Cover with the brine and store in the fridge for three days.
Rinse the chaps and ears off and put in your stock pot with the vegetables, cover with plenty of water and bring to the boil. Simmer for two hours. Set the ears aside in the fridge (we will come to them later). Lift a chap from the stock and, whilst it is still hot, cut away the skin, leaving most of the fat. Now for the tricky bit: whilst it is still hot, roll the chap up into a cone shape and wrap tightly with cling film. This is a hot and messy job, and easier with two people! Now do the next one in the same way. Make sure they wrapped tightly and allow to cool. Then move to the fridge to chill for at least 12 hours. You will now have a delicious cured meat that is lovely with chutney and pickles.
Don’t throw the stock away! – strained and diluted depending on how salty it is, it will make the perfect base to a pea or lentil soup.
A more traditional way to cook a pig’s head is to make brawn, and this uses the whole head – but unless you have a truly vast stock pot, best to do half a head at a time. You can ask your butcher to split the head, or you can do it yourself using a bone saw. Some people like to brine the head for a day or so first, but this is optional and we tend not to bother.
Blow torch the half a head all over to remove hairs then place in a large stock pot with the stock veg as given for the Bath Chaps. If you have them, add a trotter or two to the pot as well. Cover with lots of water and boil for hours until you can see the bones and meat have completely separated.
Allow to cool down enough so you can handle it. Now is the messy and slightly grim part, but it is worth taking particular care now to ensure you have a lovely result. Arm yourself with lots of bowls and pull a piece of meat and/ or bone out at a time and carefully pick over it, aiming for lean meat only – discarding fat, skin and bone and anything you just don’t fancy eating. There will be a fair bit of lean nice looking meat in there too. Some people like a bit of fat in the mix, but I prefer to go for lean meat only.
Once you have your pile of meat, move it to the fridge whilst you deal with the stock –which you should strain and separate the fat off from. You wont need anything like this much for the brawn but the remainder can be reduced down to make a good base to stews or reduced even further to make a tasty jelly for pork pies etc once cold..
Measure off a big pan full of the stock and boil to reduce to about two thirds to strengthen the flavour. Now measure off a pint of this and set the rest aside. Put the pint of stock back in the pan and add about a third to half a bottle of dry white wine, and a teaspoon of mixed dried herbs now bring back to the boil and reduce the volume back to a pint.
Whilst that is happening, prepare the meat, cut it into fairly small dice and mix up the lighter and darker meat. Place these in a plastic heat proof pot – don’t pack it down. When the stock is ready, taste and season if necessary. Then pour the hot stock over the meat. Allow to cool, then move it to the fridge to set over night. The next day you will be able to turn out the brawn and slice it. Brawn freezes really well. The picture shows the brawn made from a half a pig's head
Crispy Pig’s ears
Finally, let us turn back to those ears we put in the fridge to deal with later. Crispy pig’s ears are turning up in restaurants, but they are a doddle to cook and you may find, as we did, your butcher is happy to give them to you for free. They do benefit from having been brined before cooking, and can be slow cooked with the chaps as mentioned above. Cut the cooked ears into strips and toss in cornflour. Shallow fry them in oil until golden and crispy – remember they are already cooked, so it is just a matter of crisping them up. Serve with chilli dipping sauce.