This guest post is brought to you by Ryan Adams, author of the blog Nose to Tail at Home. Ryan did a series on offal and each week he highlighted a different part of the animal that you've always wanted to work with, but were afraid to ask your butcher for. The content has been modified slightly for the Professional Chef audience. 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 was long before I had decided to take part in the wild blogging adventure I'm on now. The sweetbreads had been sautéed 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.
Sweetbreads are the pancreas and thymus glands of veal, young beef, lamb and pork. The thymus gland (also called the throat sweetbread or “gorge” in French) has an elongated shape, while the pancreas (heart or stomach sweetbread, “noix” in French) is larger and has an oval shape. The heart sweetbread is considered by most to be the more prized because of its larger size, delicate flavor, and more firm yet creamy texture. Some say that the throat sweetbreads have less flavor than heart sweetbreads.
Sweetbreads from milk-fed veal or young calves are considered by most chefs to be the best. Those from young lamb are also quite good, though they are much smaller and have a less delicate flavor than veal sweetbreads. Pork sweetbreads should be from a piglet or they will have a bit of a strong flavor, and sweetbreads from beef are tougher than ones from veal or calf.
Sweetbreads 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.
Sweetbreads are very versatile and can be cooked and presented any number of ways. But regardless of your final cooking method, all sweetbreads utilize the same initial preparation. First, they must be soaked in cold water (some chefs use acidulated water) for at least a few hours and the water must be changed several times (many chefs allow up to 24 hours for this step). This process is called “degorging” and is very important as it removes the impurities and blood from the sweetbreads, resulting in a milder flavor and whiter product.
The second step is to blanch them. Depending upon your final preparation you may do a simple blanch stating with cold water, court bouillon, or stock. Bring them to a gentle boil, remove and shock in ice water. This process further removes impurities and firms the sweetbreads to make the next step a little easier.
A more contempory method for step two is shared by Chef Robert Simmelink who uses Heston Blumenthal's procedure. Soak the sweet breads in salt water or milk overnight. Then sous vide and cook in a combi at 149°F for 2 hours and chill in ice water. At this point they are really easy to clean.
The third stip is to remove any gristle or veins, and then gently remove the thick membrane. You’re going to want to use your hands for this process, not tongs or any other tool, because you need to be gentle.
The last part of this “initial preparation” is to press the sweetbreads. Not all chefs do this step so it is dependent upon your final preparation and the degree of perfection you are looking for. To press the sweetbreads, lay them in a single layer on a damp lint-free towel on a sheet pan or other shallow pan. Cover with another damp towel and top with a pan of equal size to the first pan. Place one or two #10 cans (or approximately 3 - 8 lbs) on top and place in the refrigerator for 2-24 hours (press to a thickness of about ¾”).
Now the initial preparation is done! You are ready to cook them using your desired method.
Once you've prepped them successfully, sweetbreads can be cooked multiple ways each with excellent results: sautéed, 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 a signature entrée, sandwiches, pates, terrines, sausages or simply served alone with a slice of lemon.
Sweetbread Purchasing Considerations
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 and surrounded with a slick membrane. Choose sweetbreads which are white-pink, plump and firm. Sweetbreads from older animals will be redder than ones from young animals. Veal, young calf and beef sweetbreads are generally available from your beef vendor or in specialty meat markets year-round, but lamb and pork sweetbreads usually require a special order. Since sweetbreads are organ meats they are very perishable and need to be cooked within 24 hours of purchase for best results. Freezing is 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!
Sweetbread Cookbook Resources
- The French Laundry by Thomas Keller
- Fat Duck by Heston Blumenthal
- Professional Cooking by Wayne Gisslen
- The New Professional Chef by the CIA
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