Sweetbreads — Offal of the Highest Order

March 28, 2009

Blogging affords me an opening to share one of my most revered delicacies—a source of rapture since childhood. These opulent nuggets have a soft, delicate texture and an incomparable subtle flavor which borders on creamy.

Sweetbreads do not deserve the miscreant label often bestowed upon other carrion simply because they were originally poor man’s food retrieved from the butcher’s floor. Rather, sweetbreads have attained a lofty station in the world of fine cuisine (as if caste really counts). Anyway, consider how we so heedlessly discard choice innards and reserve only the loin, ribs, etc. It is not only openly wasteful, it dishonors the noble animal—we need to butcher and eat nose to tail.

Sweetbreads are glands located in the chest, throat and stomach area of young calves, lambs or pigs. There are two differing glands which fall under the overall rubric of sweetbreads—the thymus and the pancreas. The thymus gland is located in the young animal’s neck and is primarily responsible for excreting protective t-cells as part of the immune system. Thymus sweetbreads are more irregular in shape than pancreas sweetbreads, and are also considered to be less complex in flavor.

The pancreas variety of sweetbreads is located near the stomach, producing insulin and other digestive enzymes. Pancreas sweetbreads are generally larger and rounder in shape than their thymus brothers. Of the two, the pancreas sweetbreads of young calves (the classic ris de veau) are more heavily prized.

When buying, sweetbreads should be white or slightly pink in color, as the redder the hue, the older the animal.

Why is this victual delicacy called “sweetbreads?” Some linguists date the term back to the late 1500s, suggesting that the word “bread” was used interchangeably with the word “morsel”…and what incomparable sweet morsels they are.


Sea salt
Water (or whole milk) to cover
Bay leaf
5 peppercorns
4 thyme sprigs
3/4 C white wine vinegar

Rinse sweetbreads well. Soak them for a couple of hours in the fridge in a covered bowl of cold water, changing the water at least once; drain. Bring a heavy pot of salted water (or milk), bay leaf, peppercorns, thyme and wine vinegar to a boil, and add the sweetbreads. Reduce heat and simmer gently 5 minutes. Drain sweetbreads in a colander discarding aromatics, then transfer to a bowl of ice and cold water to cool and halt the cooking process. Remove and pat dry with paper towels. Remove any excess fat, membrane and cartilage (often not much) and compress them between two towel lined plates or baking sheets. With a brick or light dumbbell, weight down the sweetbreads and put them in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 hours, covered.

Remove sweetbreads and proceed with your recipe of choice.


1 1/2 lbs sweetbreads
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 t dried thyme
6 T olive oil (divided)
4 T unsalted butter (divided)
1/4 lb fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
1/4 lb fresh crimini mushrooms, sliced

2 shallots, peeled & thinly sliced

1 C Madeira
1 1/2 C chicken stock
1 C heavy whipping cream

Prep sweetbreads (see above)

Season sweetbreads with salt and pepper; set aside

In a large, heavy skillet, heat oil and butter over medium high heat.

Add mushrooms, season with salt, pepper and thyme and cook until slightly browned but still firm; set aside. Clean out skillet some with paper towels, and add more olive oil and butter. Add sweetbreads and saute until browned, about 3 minutes per side. Remove and set aside, loosely tented.

Add sliced shallots and cook about 2 minutes to sweat.

Deglaze skillet with a little Madeira, then add remainder of Madeira and reduce by half. Add stock, bring to a boil and reduce to 1 cup. Add cream, bring to a boil and cook sauce 3 minutes or until almost thickened; then add sweetbreads and mushrooms to finish the dish and thicken the sauce.


1 1/2 lb sweetbreads
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Prep sweetbreads (see above).

Soak woooden skewers in water for one or more hours.

Preheat charcoal grill to medium high heat. Hold your open hand about three inches above the hot grate with the coals already spread and count to 3 seconds before the pain demands you retract (see On Grilling).

Separate sweetbreads into roughly 2″ pieces (about 20) using your fingers. Season with salt and pepper and then toss sweetbread pieces with oil in a bowl; thread onto skewers (about 5 pieces on each).

Grill sweetbreads, turning once, until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes total. Transfer to a platter and let stand, loosely covered with foil, for 5 minutes.


1 1/2 lbs sweetbreads
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper

1/2 lb bacon or pancetta

2 organic, free range eggs, room temperature
2 T water
1 C flour
2 C fine fresh bread crumbs

1 C canola oil

6 T butter

Prep sweetbreads (see above)

Cut slices of bacon or pancetta into small pieces about 1 inch by 1/2 inch; saute in heavy skillet until crispy, then drain on paper towels; set aside.

Put the egg in a flat dish and add the water; beat to blend. Put the flour and bread crumbs in separate flat dishes or soup bowls.

Dip the sweetbread pieces first in flour, then in egg, then in bread crumbs. The sweetbreads should be thoroughly coated, but shake off excess. Pat the pieces all over to make the crumbs adhere.

Heat oil in a heavy skillet large enough to hold the pieces in one layer, but do not crowd. Cook on one side until golden. Turn and cook until golden on the other side. Cook, turning occasionally, about 10 minutes.

Heat the butter in a large, heavy skillet and cook, swirling it around, until foamy and starting to turn hazelnut brown. Remove from heat immediately and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle over sweetbreads and top with bacon or pancetta lardons.


One Response to “Sweetbreads — Offal of the Highest Order”

  1. matt Says:

    This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

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