Why Pig’s Head Should Headline Your Next Cookout
Time to turn some heads.
One evening in April 2017, Cleveland chef Jonathon Sawyer looked me dead in the eye and said, “I’m sending you back to New York with a pig’s head. And you’re cooking it when you get home.” He then handed me a wide plastic container that contained one brined, braised, and halved hog noggin.
This was unexpected. I’d been in northeast Ohio to help Sawyer with his second cookbook, House of Vinegar, which features a recipe for a pig’s head just like the one that appears on the brunch menu of the James Beard-winner's storied Cleveland gastropub, The Greenhouse Tavern. I knew that recipe testing for the book wouldn’t happen for another several weeks, and I wasn’t expecting to be involved. However, Sawyer had other ideas. He wanted me, a regular home cook with a baseline knowledge of cooking pork, to attempt the recipe and report my findings.
The next morning, like a Five Families hitman, I lugged the cranium through two airports and stored it during work hours in my office’s refrigerator before bringing it home. Armed with Martin’s potato rolls, a tub of slaw, and barbecue sauce, two friends and I pulled out the head -- its jaw parted and set in an eternal moment of shock -- and cooked it. It was the best pork we’d ever had: rich, fatty, and unctuous.
It was a revelatory moment. The head, despite being derided as a scrap cut, is perhaps one of the best parts of the pig you can prepare for a cookout. It’s cheap, multi-purposeful, and delicious. And its use throughout cuisines around the world -- from Filipino sisig and Mexican pozole to American souse -- means you’ll never have a shortage of recipe options.
“It’s where all the fat and flavor’s at,” Bryan Furman, pitmaster of Savannah, Georgia's whole-hog barbecue joint B’s Cracklin’, said. “It’s the same thing with beef cheeks. That’s the most flavorful part of the cow because they’re chewing all the time. And the jaw, the ears -- all of that is flavorful.”
Humans have consumed heads in some form for as long as we’ve been hunting animals. Eating offal from this part of the animal served two purposes. First, thanks to organs like the brain, it provided the greatest source of nutrients for early humans. Second, it allowed for religious expression in certain cultures.
“Historically for Rosh Hashanah, Persian Jews would eat veal or beef tongue,” said Jeremy Umansky, chef and co-owner of Cleveland delicatessen Larder, who was also a writer/researcher on House of Vinegar. “The whole idea was eating this organ out of the head of an animal represents the start of things, so consuming that would impart that on an individual.”
Head cheese -- a spiced, gelatinous pork loaf made from boiling down a pig’s head -- was one of the first pig’s head-derived dishes documented, and its various iterations can be found around the world from Europe to Asia and the Americas. Specific mentions for pig’s head as a standalone dish appeared as early as the 17th century, as Huffington Post found an English menu from 1682 that detailed “a whole hog's head souc'd with carrots in the mouth, and pendants in the ears, with guilded oranges." Pig's heads also became a part of Carolina BBQ, souse (a vinegar-heavy head cheese) in the South, and later at Eastern European delicatessens in the form of tongue sandwiches.
But its emergence as a show-stopping meal centerpiece at mainstream American restaurants is recent. While English chef Fergus Henderson and his nose-to-tail philosophy brought pig’s head to the UK in the mid-2000s, Umansky says you can probably trace pig’s head’s appearance on mainstream American menus to one person.
“I honestly think it was Jonathon [Sawyer] who was one of the first to put it on a menu outside of, like, formal fine dining in a French restaurant,” he said. “When he first put it on the menu of a casual gastropub at The Greenhouse Tavern, I think that’s one of the things that really cemented Jonathon into American culinary history, like him being, ‘no, I’m going to fucking do this at my bar.’”
Since then, Americans’ predilection for pork has exploded. American sales of pork are up 20 percent since 2011, and pig’s head can be found on menus coast to coast, from Chris Cosentino's Cockscomb in San Francisco to CBD Provisions in Dallas. While its newfound popularity hasn’t caused its price to surge like pork belly (American pork producers export every nine out of 10 pigs’ feet and heads to China), there’s a growing openness to the cut among American diners.
But the appearance of pricy shareable hogs’ heads on American menus shouldn’t erase its history in many parts of the world: One utilized simply because populations couldn’t afford to throw it out or waste it.
“Mexico is a poor country and we eat everything out of the animal,” said chef and Chiapas, Mexico native Cosme Aguilar. “My mom used to kill the animals and we used to make the carnitas. And from the head we’d make pozole, stock to make soups, use it in the chicharron -- everything.”
Aguilar includes pig’s head in the pozole on the menu at his Michelin-starred New York City restaurant Casa Enrique. While he says people utilize different cuts of pork to produce the thick broth that’s characteristic of the hominy stew (or none at all), Aguilar claims that the right way is to use the pig’s head because it provides the richest flavor. However, he’s still hesitant to advertise the addition of pig’s head to his pozole.
“If you say that the pozole has meat, they love it,” he said. “If you tell them where it comes from, it’s like tongue tacos: you don’t say anything. They say, ‘oh, it’s so delicious. What kind is it…. Oh, it’s tongue?’ You should’ve told me! I hate that thing!’”
Leah Cohen, chef and owner of New York City Filipino restaurant Pig & Khao, has seen a different reaction to her restaurant’s sisig, a traditional Filipino dish that calls for braising, dicing, grilling, and frying many parts of the pig’s head before serving them mixed with items like onion and egg on a sizzling platter. It quickly became the restaurant’s most popular dish, forcing Cohen and her staff to go through an estimated 36 to 42 pig masks per week (pig masks are pigs’ heads with the skull removed).
“We label on the menu that the sisig has pig’s head in it,” Cohen said. “We have an open kitchen and people at our chef’s counter, so a lot of times I will overhear people’s conversation and they will be like, ‘oh, pig’s head -- I dunno.’ But then they’ll see me plating someone’s sisig and get curious. So I think the fact that it’s not a whole head makes it a little more appetizing for people who aren’t adventurous eaters.”
Pitmaster Furman said he sees a generational divide in people’s embrace of the head; although, he that’s starting to change. Furman grew up around hogs on his grandparents’ farm in rural South Carolina, watching his grandmother make head cheese from the pigs she slaughtered and his grandfather eat scrambled eggs with pig’s brain for breakfast. He noted that at whole-hog roasts, older attendees always go for the uber-flavorful head meat first. However, it’s another pig’s head-based dish, hash and rice, that he said has become one of the most universally popular items he serves at B’s.
“You know something’s popular when kids like it,” Furman said. “And kids love hash and rice. When I do an event now, I always get asked, ‘are you gonna have hash?’”
Although it’s a regional dish that’s predominantly found in the Midlands region of South Carolina, Furman’s on a mission to take hash and rice nationwide (he’s currently working with the USDA to sell his recipe online). Hash is similar to a Brunswick stew: It’s essentially a pig’s head that’s been boiled and then ground down into a gravy-like consistency alongside veggies and spices. It’s served hot and primarily over white rice, but Furman notes you can also eat it similar to a sloppy Joe. He credits the fact that it’s so savory and versatile that makes it popular.
He models his recipe after the one used at Campbell’s Quick Stop in Rembert, South Carolina as a way to pay homage to the business owners and pitmasters who sold it long before him. Much like the use of pig’s head in pozole and sisig, the inclusion of pig’s head in hash came from a cooking of scarcity, helping to weave the culinary fabric of a country and culture in the process.
“I’m not a historian, but I do know all the prime parts were not available to our people back then, and we had to make our best out of it,” he said. “That’s why when you do find good hash, most of the time it’s coming from a black-owned barbecue joint. Because it originated in our families.”
When it comes to home cooking, think of a pig’s head as a food enhancer. You can serve the pig’s head as-is, but -- as evidenced by its role in pozole, sisig, and hash and rice -- it also adds a different dimension to anything that calls for pork or meat.
The genesis of all that flavor is the sheer amount of connective tissue that’s found in the head. When you apply heat to the head during the cooking process, the collagen in the connective tissue breaks down and turns into gelatin. Upon serving, that broken-down tissue then mimics the unctuousness and richness of fat without actually creating a fatty cut of pork.
“You’re essentially left with this succulent mouthfeel where you’re thinking, 'Do I slurp or do I chew this?'” Umansky said.
With that being said, all of the chefs interviewed for this story agreed that when cooking a pig’s head it’s best to follow a slow-and-low formula, no matter the recipe: Cook the head over a low heat (between 250 to 275 degrees, typically) for a long period of time (many hours). Doing the opposite could overcook the meat.
When Furman uses the big Weber grill that sits outside his house to make pig’s head, he’ll start a fire on one side but place the head bone-side down on the opposite side to ensure he properly cooks it (most grills can’t fit a whole head, so ask your butcher to halve a head if you’re going to grill it). Once he can poke his finger through the meat, he’ll then flip it.
“Then right at the end I put it directly over the coals to crisp the skin up,” he said. “So indirect cook it and then direct cook it for finishing.”
For seasoning, Cohen suggests letting a pig’s head sit fully submerged overnight in a brine in order to flavor the pork. She mentions a mixture of salt, sugar, star anise, cloves, bay leaves, garlic, and water, which is what she and Pig & Khao’s staff use to brine their pork shanks. The brine’s ability to infiltrate every crevice of a head lends itself well to a large cut of pork.
“If you’re just grilling it and you marinate it, you’re not really getting in [the flavor],” Cohen said. “But if you brine, it it will also help the texture and the flavor of the meat.”
Of course, none of these tips are practical if you haven’t properly sourced the head in the first place. When it comes to pigs’ heads, butchers are your best friends. Whether you want certain parts removed or need a head to be halved, the butcher can provide a noggin that fits your recipe’s needs. While Furman never uses the brain and Cohen avoids the snout, both they and Aguilar mention that everything within the head is edible and provides flavor; your use of what’s in there all depends upon your recipe and your tastes. The beauty of the pig’s head is that it’s perhaps the most multi-purposeful part of the hog: Everything you don’t use can always be employed later for something else.
“When we cook the pig’s head for pozole, we use only the meat in the head,” Aguilar says. “The rest -- the ears, tongue, cheeks, and everything -- we chop them up to make delicious tacos.”
Since my inaugural experience, I’ve served pig’s head one other time: for a party that my roommates and I held this year for the Super Bowl. As the chefs noted, it was a process to make. I called into a local Brooklyn butcher a week before I planned to serve it, brined the pig’s head for two days, began the cooking process in my apartment’s oven the day before the game, and then finished it one hour before kick-off, serving it as pulled-pork sandwiches. Was it worth it? Of course. I spent $16 on a halved head, served 10 people -- all of whom had their perceptions of scrap cuts changed that February evening -- and then had leftovers for the week.
Embracing pig’s head, especially for your cookout, is a no-brainer. Pun very much intended.