Head cheese and scrapple are two traditional meat dishes with humble origins.
Both were created to make use of leftover meat scraps from butchering hogs and cattle.
While they share some similarities, there are important differences between head cheese and scrapple in terms of ingredients, preparation method, texture, flavor, and regional popularity.
What is Head Cheese?
Head cheese is not actually a dairy cheese, but rather a terrine or meat jelly made from the flesh of the head of a pig or calf. It was created in Europe during the Middle Ages as a way to reduce waste from animal butchering.
To make head cheese, the head of the animal - often along with feet, organs, and other trimmings - is boiled to extract flavor and gelatin. Once tender, the meat is picked from the bones then chopped or ground. It is highly seasoned, packed into a mold or bowl, and chilled so the natural gelatin sets it into a sliceable loaf.
Head cheese is typically eaten cold or at room temperature. Its texture varies from firm and sliceable to soft and spreadable, depending on the proportion of gelatin. The flavor also ranges considerably based on the seasoning used, though classics like black pepper, allspice, onion and bay leaf are common.
Key Takeaway: Head cheese is essentially a terrine of meat from the head and other trimmings taken from pigs or cows. It uses natural gelatin to set the ground, seasoned meat into a firm, sliceable loaf.
What is Scrapple?
Like head cheese, scrapple originated as a thrifty way for rural communities to reduce waste from hog butchering. It likely derived from a similar old German dish called panhas or pon haus.
The basic process of making scrapple is to boil bony scraps like hog heads, organs, and trimmings to extract flavor and gelatin into a rich broth. Once tender, bones are removed and reserved meat is minced. Cornmeal or buckwheat flour is boiled into the nutrient-rich broth to create a thick mush. Seasonings like sage, pepper, thyme and savory are added along with the minced meat.
The mush is poured into loaf pans to set. When fully cooled and firm, scrapple is cut into slices before being pan fried and served crisp.
So while head cheese uses natural gelatin to solidify, scrapple adds grain-based thickeners to create its signature mushy, loaf-able consistency. The flavor tends to be dominated by pork and seasonings like sage.
Key Takeaway: Scrapple originated from thrifty rural communities aiming to reduce butcher waste. Meat scraps and trimmings are boiled into broth then formed into loaves using a cornmeal or flour mush binder before being sliced and fried.
Head Cheese vs. Scrapple Comparison
Now that you know the basics, here is a detailed head-to-head comparison of head cheese and scrapple:
- Meat used: Both traditionally use pork meat, primarily from the head and odd bits. Scrapple sometimes adds other organs. Head cheese can use calf or pig.
- Binders: Head cheese uses natural gelatin to set. Scrapple uses cornmeal or flour mush.
- Flavorings: Highly variable seasoning and regional differences. Common examples include onion, pepper, sage, thyme, savory, allspice, bay leaf, vinegar.
- Head cheese - Simmer meat to extract gelatin into broth. Pick meat from bones then grind/mince. Season. Pour into mold to set.
- Scrapple - Boil bony scraps to make nutrient-rich broth. Remove bones then mince meat. Thicken broth with cornmeal/flour to make mush. Season. Pour into pans to set.
- Head cheese - Sliceable, spreadable meat gelatin. Can be firm or soft depending on gelatin proportion.
- Scrapple - Slices fry up crispy on the outside with a soft, mushy pork/grain interior. Firm enough to slice before cooking.
- Head cheese - Dominated by meat juices. Can taste mildly porky and seasoned depending on ingredients and recipe.
- Scrapple - Tastes strongly of salty pork and sage. Other herbs and spices vary by regional recipes.
Serving & Eating
- Head cheese - Typically served cool or at room temperature. Eaten as cold cuts or appetizer meat spreads.
- Scrapple - Formed into slices, then pan fried crisp on both sides before serving hot. Often enjoyed as a breakfast meat or snack.
Both scrapple and head cheese originated in thrifty rural communities of Europe. Today, their regional popularity differs:
- Head cheese - Prized in places like England, France, and Germany as a charcuterie or luncheon meat. Also known as brawn or souse.
- Scrapple - Most popular in Mid-Atlantic American states (Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia). Sometimes found nationwide.
|Europe (Middle Ages)
|Germany/America (colonial era)
|England, France, Germany
|Mid-Atlantic USA, Pennsylvania
|Pig, calf heads + odd bits
|Pork heads, organs, scraps
|Pepper, onion, bay leaf, allspice
|Sage, pepper, thyme, savory
|Sliceable meat jelly
|Crispy fried with soft interior
|Cool or room temp
|Hot, just fried
Key Takeaway: While both originated as thrifty meat dishes, head cheese remains popular across Europe while scrapple found a strong cultural foothold in rural communities surrounding Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States.
Are head cheese and scrapple healthy to eat?
Like many foods made from organ meats and animal fats, both dishes can be high in cholesterol and sodium if eaten in excess. However, since ingredients vary across recipes, nutritional values can differ greatly. In moderation, they provide protein, vitamins and minerals.
Do they contain any dairy ingredients?
No. Despite the name, head cheese contains no actual dairy. Neither does scrapple.
Can they be purchased ready-to-eat?
Yes. Both pre-made head cheese and scrapple can be found refrigerated or frozen at many grocery stores, especially in regions where they are popular dishes. You can take them home to slice and serve.
Are head cheese and scrapple vegetarian or vegan friendly?
Traditionally no, since they are made from pork and other animal ingredients. However, some commercial producers offer beef or turkey varieties. Vegetarian versions may exist using meat substitutes.
What is the difference between scrapple and goetta?
Goetta and scrapple share some similarities as pork and grain meat loaves originally from German-American communities. However, goetta uses steel-cut oats as the main binder instead of scrapple's cornmeal or flour. And goetta contains onions and seasonings like black pepper, while scrapple is known for sage, thyme and savory.
What meat parts actually go into traditional head cheese and scrapple?
As thrifty dishes made from odd meat bits, ingredients can vary. Head cheese may contain meat from pig or calf heads including cheek, tongue, etc. as well as feet, organs or bones. Scrapple starts with bony pig scraps like heads, liver, kidneys, feet then removes bones after boiling.
While their humbler origins may not sound immediately appetizing to some modern palates, both head cheese and scrapple provide a nourishing, efficient use of resources while preserving beloved old regional culinary traditions.
They transform what could be discarded waste from butchering into storied meat dishes with rich, satisfying flavor.