The first time I had sweetbreads was at Les Nomades in Chicago. I was there with another chef friend for a continuing education course at Kendall College, and of course, as part of our education we had to dine out! The sweetbreads were course 5 of 12 and of all the dishes on the menu, this is the one I most anticipated with bated breath. Was it going to be fantastic or bizarre? It arrived at the table with a gorgeous caramelization, served over just enough risotto accented with wild mushrooms. It was crunchy on the outside, and mouth-watering tender on the inside with a delicate sweet flavor unlike anything else I had ever eaten....I loved it!
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 esteemed by chefs of all styles of cuisine because of their interesting flavor and unparalleled texture. And, truth be told, many chefs love the "labor of love" which goes into transforming them from a Halloween sideshow into something transcendent.
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 contemporary 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 oven at 149°F for 2 hours and chill in ice water. At this point they are really easy to clean.
The third step 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 that the initial preparation is done you are ready to cook! Because they are so versatile, you have a number of popular cooking options available...they are routinely: grilled, sautéed, deep fried, roasted, or poached. Once you have mastered the initial preparation method the world is your stage as you play with different applications and presentations.
Sweetbreads can be sliced and added to salads, used as the main component for a signature appetizer or entrée, sandwiches, amuse bouche, pates, terrines, canapes, sausages or whatever other concoction you can dream of.
Sweetbread Purchasing Considerations
Sourcing sweetbreads, especially for the home cook, can be a challenge. Start by contacting your local butcher or Halal meat market to see if they carry sweetbreads. If not, they may be able to special order them for you. Also note that lamb sweetbreads are quite small so verify how much is available. Veal sweetbreads seem to be easier to find, and they are larger so it isn’t as difficult to get the quantity you need.
Fresh sweetbreads should be slightly moist and covered 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 much too delicate and their signature texture would be ruined.
Sweetbreads are considered to be the gateway to offal, and the first bite is the sweetest. Once you've tried them you'll consider an adventure into other offal as well.
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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