Our last pig, Daphne, had a hanging weight of 179.2 pounds, and had a head that weighed 12.8 pounds, or a little over 7% of the animal. Daphne wasn't an anomaly. Before Daphne was Clive whose head weighed in at just under 7%. We've accepted this as the norm at the shop. But what we haven't accepted as normal is the fact that approximately 7% of the pork in the grocery store doesn't reflect the presence of Daphne's head. It isn't boldly labeled as "pig head", putting consumers in touch with their food. On the contrary, it is disguised as "pork" in canned meats, ground pork products, hot dogs, sausages, etc. We've unjustly anthropomorphized the pig head and pushed it aside when we should, in fact, be celebrating it and all that it brings to the table.
It's safe to say that food trends have run their course when they start appearing on fast food menus. And with pork belly finally making it's way onto the Arby's menu, we can put the proverbial knife into it, and say that it had a good run over the last 10 or 15 years. We also get bacon, an American icon whose popularity may never dwindle, from the same cut of meat. What is worth mentioning here is that the pork belly and the pig head offer a very similar fat to muscle ratio. If you like the combination of crispy skin and fatty meat that braised pork belly offers, then you'd like the pork cheek prepared in the same fashion. If you like the salty and fatty flavor punch of pancetta, you'd also like guanciale, or dry-cured pork jowls. Both can be used interchangeably in dishes like Pasta Carbonara. We've cured and smoked pork cheeks using the same recipe and technique that we use in Hinckley's Fancy Bacon, and guess what? It tastes just like bacon!
But the one thing that differentiates pork bellies from pig heads the most is the price. On-trend foods command a higher dollar amount. So using pig heads rather than pork bellies will allow you to further stretch your food dollar without compromising any flavor.
Here's a few things that we've learned over the years about pig heads.
Pig ears can be used in multiple applications. But our favorite way to prepare them is to braise them in pork stock for about 4 hours and then cool them down. Once they are cool, slice them into thin strips and deep fry them until crispy. Toss them in your favorite spicy seasoning and give them a squeeze of lemon or lime. This might be the best beer food ever.
Deboning a pig head isn't difficult. It just takes a little practice. Once deboned, the head can be rubbed with garlic, parsley, lemon zest, chili flake, fennel seed, and olive oil to make the famed Porchetta di Testa. Slow cook it covered in the oven covered in pork stock for about 4 hours. You can use the skull to make the pork stock. Remove the cover and crank up the heat for crispy skin.
If you'll be serving it cold, like the one pictured on the top of this page, leave it covered the whole time it is in the oven and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap when it comes out. Refrigerate overnight before thinly slicing. The English have a similar version in their trendy Bath Chaps recipe.
At Hinckley's Fancy Meats we use pig heads in many of our products.
If you're a hunter, please feel free to also substitute wild boar (above) for any of these recipes and techniques. Many chefs who work with pig heads carry disposable razors in their knife rolls to remove some of the stubble left on the head. A blow torch can also be used, but will leave the home kitchen smelling of burnt hair (and most likely will annoy the pastry chef who is usually the one in possession of said blow torch in a professional kitchen).
Guanciale is an Italian style of dry-cured pork jowl. At Hinckley's Fancy Meats, we make guanciale by first rubbing the pork jowls with salt, nitrates, and black pepper. If you dig into old cookbooks, you'll see saltpeter (potassium nitrate) as a common ingredient in dry cured meat recipes. People used potassium nitrates in the preservation of meats since the Middle Ages. It has since been replaced by sodium nitrate, which provides more consistent results. Some studies show that nitrates are suspected of producing nitrosamine, a carcinogen. Despite this, nitrate salts have been used in the USA since the 1920's, because of their ability to inhibit the germination of C. botulinum endospores, thus preventing botulism that would likely occur in meat hanging at room temperature for extended periods of time. As with all meat products, moderation is key.
To make your own guanciale or other cured meats, have a look at our tutorial on Building A Dry Cure Locker.
Nduja (pictured on pizza), Cotechino, and many other sausages are made with meat from pig heads. Foodies will go to great lengths to find these gems. It's fascinating that many consumers choose to buy meat produced using Advanced Meat Recovery Systems, but wouldn't ever think of roasting a pork jowl for two. In our humble opinion, one should not need a centrifuge to make supper.
Headcheese is known by another name in just about every country that doesn't consider eating pork a crime. In Dutch Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and here in Florida we call it "Souse", and it's often made with pickled meat. At the shop we generally make two kinds of headcheese: a smoked variety, and one that is braised and pulled. Both do well on charcuterie boards served up with mustard, horseradish, hot sauces, pickles, and crackers or crusty bread. They also make for great sandwiches like the bánh mì. We include the ears and tongue in our headcheese for added texture, but other producers offer "headcheese for beginners" that is made without them.
Headcheese can also be made in the Country Pâté style by running the meat from the pig head through a grinder and mixing in other flavor components. If you're having guests over who may be squeamish about unfamiliar textures, put this on the charcuterie board.
The farmers on the small, independent farms that we deal with work really hard to do things the right way. We try to be responsible with the fruits of their labor by producing the best products we can. And we try to be respectful of the animal by using the whole beast.
People don't like to think about the fact that something had to die in order to them to eat lunch. But that is the sacrifice that it takes to put meat on the plate. And beyond that, the industrialized farm systems of America put a strain on the environment and the workers that populate their plants. By making smart choices in the grocery store, asking lots of questions, returning to our stoves at home, and voting with our forks, we take control of the future of our food system.
Meat is never cheap. There is always a high price to be paid. Sometimes that price is paid by the farmer, sometimes the taxpayer. Sometimes it comes at the expense of the environment. Sometimes at the expense of the animal's welfare. Sometimes it comes at the expense of our own health.
Meat comes with a hefty price tag. And if we can reason with ourselves that eating meat was essential in human evolution and brain development, we should reason that the current industrialized method most of it is being produced with is at the expense of the environment, and therefore NOT good for human development and evolution. Being selective with the source of our meats, and eating the off-cuts as oft as we eat the tenderloin is a step in the right direction toward a sustainable farming system. A recent TEDx Talk featuring Joel Broekaert does a good job of explaining how you can "Eat less meat by eating more meat".
Daphne's two tenderloins weighed about 3 pounds combined. When you consider the amount of pork tenderloins available at the grocery store in comparison to the amount of pig heads, it begins to put things in perspective. The pig head is one of the most versatile cuts on the whole animal and should be prized as such. We encourage you to explore its endless possibilities with good wine and good friends.