“Why not join us in cooking something interesting” they said, “it’ll be fun, a thrifty bit of meat for a thrifty month.” Sure, I thought, why not? It definitely sounds interesting. Little did I know.

Like Pinnochio’s nose, it just grew and grew every time anybody talked about it. First, we were cooking brawn. Then I found out it was a competition. And it was being judged by butchers. Not just any butchers, but Jamie Oliver’s crew at Barbecoa. Oh.

And so #brawnoff was born.

Never one to back down from any sort of culinary challenge (except one) I rolled up my sleeves, went in search of a pan big enough to hold an entire pigs head, and got to work. The heads themselves were kindly donated by the Barbecoa boys along with a couple of trotters.

Now, on the surface of it, making brawn looks pretty straight forward. The strangest thing is actually dealing with a whole head. But otherwise it’s just like braising any other bony gelatinous cut of meat right? Well, sort of.

Once I delved into the cookbooks to see where to start I realised there are all sorts of ways of doing it. To brine or not to brine? What spices to use? Do you want a Caribbean, Polish or traditionally English slant to your brawn? What about the charmingly named fromage de tête from France?.

Ready to brawn it
Cooking the brawn

I decided on a fairly traditional brawn culled from recipes by Fergus Henderson, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Stéphane Reynaud and Babette de Rozières (for a Creole edge). And of course, inevitably, and with some trepidation, I added a few touches of my own.

The end result of all this brawn-making was a tightly packed brick of meat. All shiny and smooth with white and dark meats curled tightly round each other. A pretty boy brawn. Oh yes, and a kitchen covered in bits of pig. And a skull, which I thought was kind of cool.

The brawns
The brawns

The brawnoff itself made me surprisingly nervous. Would mine measure up? We all arrived and laid our brawn on the table. It was like 4-way Chinese whispers. We all started from the same point but ended up with completely different results.

Paul from How not to do a food blog created an unctuous, almost rillette-like brawn, it was sweet, nutty and smooth. Just the thing to eat with cornichons and crispy toast. FoodUrchin’s was freshened with a blast of parsley and lemon making it taste almost healthy, a spring or summer brawn. While Meemalee’s was a Burmese version, aromatic and intense with a fantastic pickled chilli dipping sauce.

Winner and the judges
The Barbecoa boys

After all tasting everyone else’s brawn (that just sounds wrong) we left the butchers to deliberate. And deliberate they did. After giving us a run down of the four brawns they pronounced mine the winner. I was gobsmacked. The thing is, they were all great and it could have been anyone on the day.

Here are the other brawner’s recipes and reports (more to come):
Paul’s unctuous and sweetly nutty brawn

The brawners – pic from Danny, @jamieoliver_ed

So, without further ado (because this is already the longest post in the world), here is The Grubworm’s champion brawn recipe. Time to roll those sleeves up and get stuck in.

The brawn
Makes one terrine sized brawn that keeps in the fridge for a week or two

The key I think to this is the brining. It allows the seasoning to really penetrate every fibre of the meat so that you get a spicy edge running all the way through the brawn. Other than that, it’s time consuming but not too difficult.

You will need a plastic container and a pan big enough to hold an entire pigs head, which is bigger than you might think, at least 18-24 inches long and about 10-15 high (approximately).

The last slice
The last slice

The recipe
1 pigs head

12l water
3kg salt
A scattering of bay leaves, coriander seeds, allspice, mace blades and peppercorns
A cup or so of unrefined caster sugar

Cooking ingredients:
3 small leeks
2 carrots
3 sticks of celery
2 onions – peeled and quartered
1 head of garlic – left whole and unpeeled
2 bay leaves
A bunch of thyme
A bunch of parsley
Zest of two lemons
4 tablespoons of sherry vinegar
2 pigs trotters (washed and shaved)
Black pepper to season

Ingredients for brawn
The cooking ingredients

Spices – tie these up in muslin (cheesecloth):
2 tsp coriander seeds
2 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp whole allspice
1 tsp whole cloves
3 blades of mace

Brawn spices
The spices

Okay, so I know this looks both complicated and time consuming, but really, it isn’t that bad. There is a lot of time involved, but you can do plenty of other things while it does its stuff.

First cut the ears off the head (they can be pretty damn waxy). Cut round the base of the ear as close to the head as you can. Then use a disposable razor to shave the head (and slice off the eyelashes). You don’t want hair in your brawn.

Now for the brine. Add 12 litres of water to your plastic box. Pour in the salt and sugar and stir until it is dissolved (5-10 minutes). Add the herbs and spices and lower in the head. Put a lid on it and leave it brining somewhere cool for 24 hours. I put it on the balcony.

Once the head has finished soaking, remove it (carefully), put it in the sink and give it a good wash and scrub. Now place it in your big pan and cover with water.

Add all the cooking ingredients and your muslin spice bag and bring to a low simmer. Skim off any junk that rises to the top. Leave cooking slowly for 4-5 hours. I turned the head over after 3.5 hours to give the top a chance to cook properly.

Remove the head and leave it to cool a little. While the head is cooling strain the stock through a sieve lined with muslin and keep at least a large pan-full, warming over a low heat. Don’t worry if it tastes mega salty, this is how it is meant to taste.

As soon as it is cool enough to touch, pick the head clean, removing as much fat as you can and peeling the tongue. Then roughly shred the meat (not too finely) and grind over some black pepper.

Pour a large spoon full of the stock into the bottom of a non-stick loaf tin and pile in about half the meat, pressing it down. Add another dessert spoon of stock and add the rest of the meat. Press it down more then add a third dessert spoon of the stock.

Now add a flat plate on top and weigh it down (I used three tins of tomatoes). If the stock rises over the top, pour a little off. Leave it to set in the fridge overnight. This should now keep for a week or two.

Enjoy in thick slices with salad and good bread.

34 Responses to “Brawn”

  1. Sasa

    Well done! I’ve never made brawn. The closest I ever came to that was sending a pig’s head down from the kitchen to the bar in the dumbwaiter to freak out the bargirls ;P

  2. Paul

    Oh my god, I completely forgot about the eyelashes haha

    Great post and great recipe, a well deserved win Monsieur Grubworm!

  3. Joshua

    Congratulations, no offence to the other attempts but thought yours looked the nicest, obviously tasted good too.

    Was wondering if you’d brined yours as it seemed to keep a bit of pink colour

  4. meemalee


    See, you were right to let yourself be conned into taking part, and I’m so glad that you did, because it was fun and yours was ace and deserved to win :)

  5. Leluu

    WOW!! Well Done Grubworm – this looks amazing
    My mum used to pick up a pig’s head all the time from the butchers when we were little. They gave it away for free! all the people would be horrified to see her carry a pig’s head down the road with a massive grin on her face.

    This looks like a great recipe, I am sure we will try out soon


  6. Tom

    Fantastic – now you just have to eat a lot of brawn.

    I suppose it is fairly health at least.

    PS – pictures even better than usual… I smell a new camera!

  7. The Grubworm

    @Vintage Macaroon – it was satisfying, surprisingly so. Even the picking of the flesh from the head was kind of fun… (am I twisted?). It;s fun to see something gradually take shape

    @Sasa thanks, it was fun to make, if lengthy. The dumb waiter incident sounds like a culinary porcine sort of Godfather scene ;)

    @Paul – Oops! And thanks :)

    @Joshua – mine was the pretty boy ;) I think the brining made a real difference to the finished brawn – you could just taste a hint of spice all the way through the meat.

    @meemalee – I was, and you all were right too. I had so much fun doing it, now raring to do more (brawn and cook-offs). Thanks too, although i really think any of them could’ve won tbh.

    @Leluu – THANKS! I can just imagine your mum walking through hackney with a head – brilliant! It was a fun recipe to put assemble. Time consuming, but mostly in a waiting around kind of way. I’ll be doing it again and refining it somewhat.

    @Tom – thanks :) The butchers ate almost all of it, I only had two slices left for dinner that night. Mine was pretty healthy as i stripped almost all the fat out. As for the pix – better light and more effort gone into these. They are rare daytime shots (mostly)

  8. Leluu

    He’s even got a little table tripod for his camera!

    @The Grubworm – perhaps a Grubworm Brawn Special at F&L’s TET supper club in Feb?

  9. Kavey

    I have never eaten brawn.
    What a fabulous challenge!
    Your brawn brick looks smashing!

  10. The Grubworm

    @oliver – thanks! It is strangely satisfying isn’t it? I really like your blog btw, i recommended it last Friday for a colleague who was cooking pig’s tail.

    @Leluu – I do ;) And let’s talk about that Brawn special…

    @Kavey – it was and thanks! Great punning too ;)

  11. Mr Noodles

    Congratulations on winning! Although it’s a bit of a shame that the butchers polished most of it off. Now you’ve done brawn, are you doing to do brains next?

  12. The Grubworm

    @Ollie – you could probably say the same for a lot of my posts

    @Mr Noodles – thanks! I was waiting for that pun… ;)

  13. Gail

    Oh man, I’m really too much of a wimp for this sort of thing. But BRAVO, sir! Looks like it was a great fun evening.

  14. The Grubworm

    @Greedy Diva – it was, so much so that I want to do MORE. I was really nervous, but that kind of made even more fun.

    @Gail – It was surprisingly un-gruesome, once you got past the whole head-in-your-kitchen thing anyhow. We even named the heads (mine was called Napoleon). T’was a fun weekend, let alone evening. Although Barbecoa do have the most awesome walk-in meat fridges.

  15. Gourmet chick

    So impressed you cooked a whole pigs head! Looks fantastic. I made rillettes a few weeks ago and was impressed enough with myself for that but you have far exceeded me!

  16. The Grubworm

    @Kay – thanks – it is tasty

    @Gourmet chick – thanks! I think rillettes will have to be on the list to try making next.

  17. The Shed

    I doth my porcine cap to you, massive efforts all ’round. Congratulations, surely something to go on your CV!

  18. Food Urchin

    You know I was joshing around saying that I was having a look in Selfridges and Harrods for brawn, well you know what I reckon?………

    No just pulling your leg, fantastic brawn there mate and well deserved winner.

  19. Best of the Blogs | blog

    [...] not every day that you get conned into taking part in a brawn-cooking contest, but it happened to The Grub Worm. First he was going to attempt to prepare brawn because it’s a low-cost meat source for these [...]

  20. The Grubworm

    @The Shed – why thank you! Oh, btw, can you tell me where you got your porcine hat form – i’d love one of me own ;)

    @Food Urchin – you were saying that… so, does that mean my brawn is better than Harrods’? ;) Thanks!

  21. Hanna

    Whooooaaa – amazing job! Very impressed – love the shot of the head in the pot.

  22. The Grubworm

    @Hanna – thanks :) It does look far more work than it actually was though.

  23. Gin and Crumpets

    Congratulations – particularly for not being icked out by having to shave a dead pig’s head and cut off it’s eyelashes (massive ewww at that bit). It looks fantastic.

  24. The Grubworm

    @Gin and Crumpets – Thanks :) It was all very untraumatic really, even the eyes weren’t that bad. And it was damn tasty too, enough that I would do it again.

  25. Susan

    CHAMPION! I bow down to your offal superiority. WELL DONE.

  26. Vicky @ Ursine Cuisine

    Interested to see this. In the process of fostering a pig (they look after it, rare breed, rooting around in the orchards), I visit when I want, and then in eight months time I tell them how I want it butchered and what I want to keep. In my case, EVERYTHING! Just had an amazing pigs head porchetta last week so getting lots of pig’s head inspiration. Bookmarking this, Grubworm!

  27. The Grubworm

    @susan *blushes* why thank you :)

    @vicky glad it’s useful. I love the idea of fostering a pig, am going to check it out asap, what a great idea!

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