Offal of the Week: Sweetbreads
Every Friday, we bring you Offal of the Week: an up-close and personal look at the less-familiar parts of the animal, by Ryan Adams of the blog Nose to Tail at Home. Each week we highlight a different cut of meat that you've always wanted to make, but were afraid to ask your butcher for. This week: Sweetbreads.
The first time I had sweetbreads was at Original Joe’s in San Jose, CA. I had just seen an opera, and it well before I decided to take part in the wild blogging adventure I'm on now. The sweetbreads had been sauteed with mushrooms and finished with a bright tomato sauce, and my first bite was unlike anything I had eaten before. Calling them tender would be an understatement, with a wonderful meatiness and a slightly metallic, delicate sweet flavor that I’ve never found in anything else. I’ve been in love with them ever since.
Scientifically speaking, sweetbreads are the pancreas and thymus glands of sheep and cattle. They are greatly favored by chefs across a variety of cuisines for those same qualities that first drew me in: interesting flavor and unparalleled texture and tenderness.
What keeps the sweetbread from gaining popularity in home cooking is the fact that they require a fair amount of fiddling with before you can actually get down to the process of cooking them. There is a thick membrane that needs to be peeled away, which is a bit more of an art form than technique. The goal is to keep the meaty nodules together with only a little bit of membrane covering to keep them intact, and unfortunately, it's much tougher in practice than it sounds.
Once you've prepped them successfully, though, sweetbreads can be cooked multiple ways each with excellent results: sauteed, deep fried, grilled, roasted, poached, and braised. Unsurprisingly, my preferred method is the one Fergus Henderson prescribes: after a soak in fresh water to remove all traces of blood, give them a quick poach in a court bouillon before pan frying in butter until the sweetbreads are brown and nutty on their exterior with a creamy and yielding middle. Once you've mastered this fairly basic preparation method, you can let the creative juices flow. The sweetbreads can be sliced and added to salads, used as the main component for sandwiches, or simply served alone with a slice of lemon. Think of them like you would a breaded chicken nugget - but tastier.
Now that your mouth is watering — and rightly so — head over to your favorite butcher or Halal meat market to see if they have sweetbreads in stock. A note on lamb sweetbreads: they are quite tiny, and it can be tough to scrounge up massive quantities of them in a short time; you should consider calling your source well in advance if you need a more than half a pound. Veal sweetbreads sport larger nodules and are easier to find, though they might be a little more expensive than the lamb variety. Here in the South I've been incredibly fortunate to find them in my local supermarket, but I believe that we are the exception rather than the rule.
Fresh sweetbreads should be slightly wet, pink and surrounded with a slick membrane. They can be stored in your refrigerator for two days tops, and freezing is sadly not an option — they are far too delicate and their signature texture would be ruined.
Sweetbreads are the gateway offal, and the first bite is the sweetest. Here are a few recipes to get you hooked!