A pig’s head is really a thing of beauty. Used like a bulldozer, the skull is incredibly thick and well adapted to easily root up tubers and grubs. The cheeks are lean and heavily muscular to facilitate all the chewing that a pig does throughout the day (the phrase “eat like a pig” doesn’t come from nowhere). And to top the whole package off, the jowls are comprised of a heavy layer of creamy fat on top of streaky, tender meat. The head is a microcosm of the pig as a whole – tough, flavorful muscle, rich fat, and tender savory meat.
Let’s take a walk through the constituent parts of the head, and talk about some of the culinary potential each has:
Usually the first thing to be removed when breaking down a head, the jowl is the fatty outer covering of the cheek muscle. Looked at as a cross section, the jowl is a thick portion of very soft fat shot through with long streaks of pale meat. The traditional preparation of jowl is Guanciale, in which the jowl is cured like bacon, but left unsmoked. When cooked, the fat melts off leaving very flavorful and rich meat. Because it’s not smoked, Guanciale is a great project to do at home A good butcher can always set aside some jowls for you, just make sure that you specify that you want them fully cleaned as there is a large amount of glands an other “not-meat” that you don’t necessarily want to end up in your finished product.
Located underneath the jowls, the cheeks are responsible for facilitating the pig’s favorite activity – eating. Much like beef shanks, the cheeks of a pig are exercised so frequently that the muscle becomes tough and full of collagen. The trick is to remember that muscles high in collagen will shrink and become dry if they are exposed to hot, dry cooking conditions. That’s why the best way to cook these guys is to braise them in a flavorful liquid like wine or beer in order to hydrolyze the protein into gelatin. Cooked slow over a few hours, the cheeks become amazingly tender and full of porky flavor – Done right, it’ll beat a pork chop on taste any day.
The ears and snout can be a serious delicacy if prepared correct, but a serious disaster if not. Both first require a thorough washing to remove any lingering debris from the farmyard, an overnight soak in lightly salted water couldn’t hurt either – just to remove any lingering bits (the ears also need a thorough once over to remove any lingering hair). Once they’re fully cleaned they’ll need to be cooked low and slow to allow the collagen and cartilage to break down. I like to do my ears submerged in beef tallow for about 4 hours in a 325 degree oven – snouts won’t need quite as long. From there you can eat them as is, they’ll be pleasantly soft and sticky, or go the April Bloomfield route and cool them down before deep frying them to crisp the outside. Either way will be a delightful nose-to-tail treat. Or nose-to-ear. You get the idea.
Now we’re getting hardcore. Not too many people indulge in pig brains these days, but they do have a certain creamy texture that is definitely worth experiencing. To get the best results the brains should be rinsed thoroughly and soaked overnight in milk. From there, a gentle poaching in a well flavored stock will keep them from falling apart. Just a few minutes will do it, too long and you risk getting a tough, fibrous finished product. Pro-tip: Theres no real disguising brains so don’t bother trying to bury them under a sauce or a heavily dressed salad. Just put a little bit on a good piece of sourdough bread, squeeze some lemon on top, then close your eyes and go for it. People talk about acquired tastes, but this is more of an acquired texture. Also as with any soft offal you’ll want to get these as fresh as possible – it’s a no brainer (sorry).
The possibilities presented by a pig’s head are many and varied. It’s small enough to make it a great at home butchering project, and has enough different preparations to keep a family fed for a few days. Couple that with the fact that most butchers are willing to save themselves the work and part with one for cheap, and you’ve got a great way to spend a weekend.
Slow Cooked Pig Ears
4 ears cleaned well with any hair removed
6 cups beef tallow or rendered pork lard
4 sprigs fresh thyme
4 cloves of garlic, smashed
1. Preheat your oven to 300
2. In a covered pot, place your ears along with the garlic and thyme, and cover with tallow.
3. Keep covered and cook until tender, about 3 hours
4. Finish with a squeeze of lemon and Sriracha and serve over rice.