What is offal? There are a number of colorful descriptions of offal which must be mentioned before we go into more detail:
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- James Raiswell refers to offal as, “mildly grotesque, seriously flavorful cuts”
- A popular old axiom states, “you can eat all of the pig except the squeal”
- The process of utilizing offal is frequently called “Nose-to-tail cooking”
- Shannon Hayes, author of Long Way on a Little, references offal as “a foray into what most Americans consider the grisly side of prudent meat consumption…”
- Anthony Bourdain says, “Nearly anyone - after a few tries - can grill a fillet mignon or a sirloin steak. A trained chimp can steam a lobster. But it takes love, time, and respect for one’s ingredients to properly deal with a pig’s ear or a kidney.”
In the United States we are more squeamish of offal than most other countries are. Some of us may try it on a dare, but for the most part Americans consider offal and Freddy Krueger to be synonymous topics...they evoke a grisly fascination but we don’t want to meet either face to face!
So, what exactly is offal? Old school butchers referred to these cuts as the “fifth quarter”, meaning that after they had butchered an animal into the standard four quarters for retail meat sales, offal was everything else that was left. Offal is a pretty broad term which not only includes the internal organs and entrails, but also includes the miscellaneous trimmings of an animal. It essentially includes everything except the muscle and bone. These cuts are also referred to as “variety meats”, “organ meats”, or “dainty meats”.
The more notorious cuts of offal include organ meats such as: brains, lungs, kidney, heart, tripe, sweetbreads, and liver. But the category of “trimmings” includes tongue, pig ears, Rocky Mountain oysters (testicles) pig snout, trotters (pig feet), ox tail, caul fat, chicken feet (popular in Asia) and pig tail. And we cannot forget about intestines! If you enjoy sausages then you have eaten offal at some point because intestines are offal and they are used for casings on some sausages.
It is important to note that not all offal carries the moniker of being “gross”. Foie gras is esteemed as a culinary extravagance, but it is simply liver…i.e. offal. Ox tail and bone marrow are other members of the “offal family” which we tend to be much less squeamish about. The first time I had bone marrow was at a cool joint in Seattle called Quinn’s Pub. I loved it! But it also made me feel a little evil…sitting there eating the marrow right from the bone!
Eating offal began as simply a practical way to utilize the entire animal. There was time and money put into raising or procuring the animal so every last bit had better be used! Some peasant dishes made from offal became holiday traditions, including the Scottish Haggis and Jewish chopped liver. And in today’s growing culture of managing waste, conservation, and minimizing carbon foot prints, “nose to tail” cooking makes a lot of sense.
The taste and texture of offal varies considerably based upon the specific cut, the animal species and age. For organ meats, veal offal is generally valued the most due to its large organs with fine flavor and texture (the obvious exception here is Foie gras, to which veal liver cannot compare). Lamb offal is also highly regarded. And while the “special cuts” of pig ears, ox tail, and so on can stand on their own, the organ offal of pigs and cow tend to be more coarse in texture and flavor than those of veal and lamb.
It takes a special touch to really bring the best out of offal, but once you have experienced it prepared by someone at this level of expertise, as Fergus Henderson has said: There are no nasty bits.
Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern enjoying Offal
Here are some sites with good Offal Recipes
Some popular books on offal, available through Amazon
- The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating by Fergus Henderson
- The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
- Unmentionable Cuisine by Calvin W. Schwabe
- Beyond Nose to Tail: More Omnivorous Recipes for the Adventurous Cook by Fergus Henderson
- Extreme Cuisine: The Weird & Wonderful Foods that People Eat by Jerry Hopkins
- Larousse Gastronomique: The World's Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia, Completely Revised and Updated
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Offal Varieties useful? Or do you have additional info or questions?
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