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.