Head cheese was originally made from pork head meat, back fat, tongue and pork skins. Unfortunately this little appealing name has stuck with the product. In other countries the word head is not part of the name so a customer is more likely to buy it. Even in the USA there were different types of head cheese, each having its own distinguished name, for example: souse, sulz or even Pennsylvania scrapple.
What most people are not aware of is the fact that pork head meat is one of the most flavorsome cuts available. When a pig is slaughtered there is almost nothing thrown away, and pork head meat somehow ended up as the main ingredient for making head cheese. Pork cheeks have a structure similar to bacon although they are a bit tougher as they contain more collagen. This collagen helps to produce the gelatin which will become jelly. Another cut which helps to produce a lot of gelatin are pork hocks.
Head cheese, brawn or souse is not a cheese, but rather a jellied meat that may or may not be stuffed into a large diameter casing. People who live in large cities cannot buy pork heads anymore. But… we can make a great tasting product by using different, easier available cuts of meat like pork picnic and shanks (hocks-pig feet). You don’t need pork head to make a modern version of head cheese. Well now there is no need to call the product by his old name and the name “meat jelly” sounds more appropriate.
Many of us have made a head cheese before without even realizing it. Every time we cook soup using beef, pork or chicken bones, we are making a weak version of a head cheese. Even fish heads, bones and fins will produce a gelatin if little water is used. The reason that our soup does not become a meat jelly is because there is too much water in it. It is common knowledge that a good soup is always based on bones. A top restaurant continuously simmers bones with vegetables in a huge pot to create a good stock which will become a base for different famous soups. Then if you add tomatoes you will get Consomme Madrileno, if you add mushrooms you will get another kind and so on.
If you want to create a top quality brawn (UK English name for a head cheese), don’t think about making a sausage but think in terms of cooking a hearty soup which will contain meat with bones and very little water. This is it, nothing else is needed. You don’t need a recipe, just cook your meat stock the way you like and your head cheese will turn out perfect. If too much water was used, the resulting liquid may not thicken and set. In such a case a commercially produced gelatin can be added. It is available in every supermarket. When fruits are added it becomes fruit jello that everybody likes for dessert.
When a commercial gelatin is mixed with water, it produces a jelly that is very clean. Lean pieces of meat, poultry or even fish can be immersed in it and some fancy artwork can be created. This is how a fruit jelly is made and kids love it. Sliced carrot, scallions, pepper, cucumber, whole peppers, olives, sliced hard boiled eggs and other items may be employed as decorations. The resulting product will look pretty and will taste great.
Head cheese is served cold, often with vinegar or lemon juice so it comes as no surprise that little vinegar is added directly to head cheese during its manufacture and the name of the product changes to souse.