Torta de Queso de Puerco (Mexican Sandwich with Head Cheese)

Meat, Pork, Sandwiches

Impress your friends and buy a pig’s head. Invite them over when you turn it into cheese. Share beers and eat cured ham.

At the markets here in Seattle, head cheese can run you about $25/lb. So, if you prefer to buy yours already made, please do it. The torta will still be delicious and filling. But it will lack the wholesome tanginess, with such incredible and rich flavors, of this one.

For the adventurous or interested cook, making head cheese is a simple and rewarding endeavor. Plus, pound for pound, it is very cheap. I bought a 14-lb. head for $25. It makes about 6-7 lbs. Plus you get the bones leftover for soup or stock and pounds of fat you can render into lard. Compared to the markets, you’re getting an incredible deal.

Pig’s Head: Days 3 & 4

Meat, Pork

photo by Steve Roberts,

As the head cheese rests in my fridge, I, in the meantime, to forget about all the coagulation in my kitchen, distract myself learning a few things.


First I turn to Harold McGee.  In his book, On Food and Cooking, he makes a brief mention of collagen, a protein responsible for connecting tissues, comprising “about a third of all the protein in the animal body” (130).  Because it’s mostly concentrated in the skin, tendons, cartilage and bones, it makes sense that Diana Kennedy emphasized the importance of using the skin from the cheeks.  According to McGee, the word for collagen, etymologically Greek, means “glue-producing.”  When heated in water, it can dissolve into gelatin.  In other words, when cooked, it softens.  (As it turns out, we and other animals are born with more collagen, and as we age it disappears; hence why veal is more gelatinous and tender.)

While I was picking apart the head, tugging at the jaw and digging my fingers through the eye sockets and other cavities, I discovered all types of different fat compositions.  The snout was purely skin and fat.

Collagen, according to Wikipedia, is the most abundant protein found in mammals, making up a quarter to a third of whole-body protein content.  Its structure is long and fibrous, and its repeating sequence of amino acids, and its composition of glycine, proline and uncommon derivative amino acids, make it both unusual and a source of interest among microbiologists.  But, what’s important to know is that its whole raison d’être is to connect tissues together: fat to skin, muscles to tendons; and, when collagen is hydrolyzed–that is, irreversibly isolated and cleared of any debris–it becomes gelatin.  It is the gelatin that will hold all the meat and flavor together in the head cheese.  Not incidentally, pig head is a major source of commercial gelatin.

Pig’s Head: Day 2

Meat, Pork

Since the original intention was to take advantage of the connective power of the pig’s head, I decided that head cheese was the best choice.  I have been giving mucho amor to my Mexican cookbooks, so I began there.  Immediately I discovered in Diana Kennedy’s The Art of Mexican Cooking a recipe that seemed simple enough, that highlighted the natural flavors of the head–she calls for water rather than a stock–by creating a broth, then reducing it down into a sort of impatient demi-glace on high heat, thus concentrating the rich and deep properties of the flavors.  It was a recipe designed for a smaller head, about half the weight of ours, so we merely doubled everything.