Some foods have confusing names. For example, sweetmeats are candied fruits and nuts, while sweetbreads are offal (the organ meat from the thymus gland and pancreas) from young animals. Head cheese also has a confusing name because it is not actually a cheese at all, and it doesn't even contain any dairy products, though the "head" part of the word is a little less misleading. While head cheese may not sound very delicious, one type of head cheese called souse sounds a lot more delectable and has a less-confusing name.
What Is Head Cheese?
Head cheese is not a cheese but instead is a meat terrine traditionally made from the head of a hog, although parts such as the feet, tongue and heart may also be added if you're looking at a more modern head cheese recipe. When a pig's head is boiled, the meat easily separates from the bone and breaks into small chunks.
Head cheese is made by boiling down the head, removing the bone and putting it into a mold (traditionally a pig's stomach or sausage casing, although any mold can work) where the meat is suspended in gelatin.
While the idea of suspending meat in gelatin sounds like something from a terribly outdated 1950s cookbook, gelatin naturally comes from bone broth of any meat that has been boiled down until enough water leaves, and the broth becomes a jelly. Because head cheese is usually made with bone-filled meats such as heads or feet, no packaged gelatin needs to be added, as the boiled bones create a natural gelatin.
In fact, real head cheese cannot be made with good cuts of meat like ham or tenderloin because they do not contain enough connective tissues that are high in collagen and thus necessary for the creation of gelatin. While you can add commercial gelatin to make something like head cheese with other cuts of meat, the gelatin will be clear and largely flavorless, making it inferior when compared to traditional head cheese.
Souse vs. Head Cheese
A lot of people wonder about souse vs. head cheese, and the simple answer is that souse is actually just a type of head cheese. When head cheese has vinegar, it's considered souse meat. It's common to find recipes for souse that do not contain vinegar, but these are mislabeled by mistake or on purpose.
Many people call vinegar-free head cheese "souse" simply because it sounds more appealing to most English speakers, who are more likely to try something called "souse" than "head cheese." It's worth noting that many resources say that hog head cheese is the same as souse, but since "hog head cheese" is just another name for head cheese, this is also misleading.
Creating souse by adding vinegar to plain head cheese makes sense logistically since most people eat head cheese with a squirt of vinegar or lemon juice anyway. The vinegar also helps the product last longer, and foods pickled in vinegar, such as pimentos, olives, green peppers or pickles, can be easily added for additional flavor and color.
What Is Sulz?
Sulz is a very similar product to souse (and also sounds more appealing than "head cheese"), except sulz is made with only pig's feet, whereas souse should contain head meat. Both souse and sulz contain around 75 percent meat, 23 percent gelatin and 3 percent vinegar.