Offal of the Week: Brains
Ah, there's no better way to spend a Friday than with Offal of the Week. Brought to you with aplomb by Ryan Adams, author of the blog Nose to Tail at Home, each week highlights a different part of the animal that you've always wanted to cook, but were afraid to ask your butcher for. This time around we get all zombie on some brains.
Usually when a bunch of food-type people get together, at a certain point they all start trying to one-up each other to see who's the most hardcore. Durian tends to come up right away, followed by Rocky Mountain oysters and other offalicious bits. But as soon as someone lets on that they’ve eaten brains, that's pretty much the end of the game, and the beginning of the questions: Where did you find them? Aren't you worried about catching something? How could you actually eat brains?
The how, the where, and the why are important concerns, but they pale before the basic question of taste. And here’s the low down: when prepared correctly, brains are an absolute culinary delight.
This is a brain. This is a brain in a frying pan.
Brain matter is composed mostly of fatty tissue, with a very mild, almost sweet flavor and a soft texture akin to heavily whipped cream. Brains lend themselves fantastically to frying, though you can also poach, roast or saute them with excellent results.
My favorite preparation is deep-fried lamb brains. It’s a straightforward preparation: I lightly poach the brains in a vegetable stock, and then roll them in seasoned flour before dunking them in an egg wash and finally covering them in bread crumbs. The brains are then fried up in hot vegetable oil and served piping-hot with a side of herbaceous English green sauce. Fergus Henderson, whose recipe I use, claims that the result is "like biting through crunch into a rich cloud."
Whichever method you choose to prepare, be sure to act quickly — the brains should be cooked as soon as possible after you purchase them. They are an incredibly fragile part of the animal, with a shelf life of roughly 24 hours.
If I only had a brain
If you're determined to chow down zombie-style, you'll have some legwork in front of you. Pork brains are the easiest to locate, as whole hog heads can be found with relative ease from local artisan pig farms. The only problem there is removing the old bean from the skull — expect to spend at least an hour or two chipping away at bone to free the brain, unless your friendly neighborhood butcher is equipped with a bone saw and happy to do the dirty work for you.
A little harder to find, but more easily available sans skull, are lamb brains. Your best bet on that front is to call a halal meat market and ask if they have brains in stock, or if they’ll special-order them for you. When I purchase them I have to call a week ahead, so take that into consideration.
Insane in the brain
While I hear they’re delicious, one type of brain you’re unlikely to come across is bovine. Calf brains are rarely available, due largely to fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as Mad-Cow Disease. It’s a fatal neurodegenerative disease in cattle that causes spongy degeneration of the brain and spinal cord, and is readily transmittable to humans by consumption. The United Kingdom has been the worst affected by the disease, and to help prevent its spread, the nation has banned lamb and cattle brains from sale.
Statistically speaking, it's highly unlikely that you will ever catch Mad-Cow Disease from consuming brains. The chances are so terribly tiny that my wife and I have eaten lamb brains on three different occasions and we've not lost any sleep over it so far. Just make sure you know your vendor is trustworthy, and that they buy their animals from reliable sources, or — if you’re buying them straight from the farm — that the animals have been raised responsibly.