What the heck are sweetbreads?

what are sweetbreads
What the heck are sweetbreads?JackF - Getty Images

The gastronomical geniuses (people who watch MasterChef) among us will already know the answer, but — for the rest of us — what are sweetbreads?

To quash a popular rumour — they aren’t testicles. Though that’s where the good news stops…

What are sweetbreads?

The name is a touch deceiving; they’re not sweet or breads, no such luck, in fact not remotely either. So, what are sweetbreads made from? They’re the organs, known as offal in culinary circles — specifically the thymus glands from the neck or throat — of a young animal, usually a lamb or calf.

They can also be from the pancreas gland, but just FYI (to save another potential menu mishap) these are sometimes called heart sweetbreads due to the shape.

So far, so truly stomach-turning — unless you’re a fine diner who’s used to this kind of cuisine. (We're looking at you, James Acaster and Ed Gamble... 🤌)

Despite the slightly bumpy appearance, they have a smooth, silky texture when eaten (though we’ll have to take their word for that) and a mild yet delicious creamy flavour (likewise, though apparently it's 'unique').

Connoisseurs prize sweetbreads from veal or young calves as the crème de la crème for its more delicate flavour and texture, as well as the lighter colour.

In fact — quick science lesson — they are only present in younger animals as they help them fend off disease and aren’t needed after about six months, so they disappear.

In a restaurant, you might see them called ‘ris de veau’, which is from veal, or ‘ris d’agneau’, from lamb — they mean sweetbreads in French.

It’s not all bad: though they sound more Bushtucker Trial than Bib Gourmand, they are somewhat of a delicacy — and, if you are still not convinced, the answer to 'are sweetbreads safe to eat?' is yes, for those who are feeling adventurous.

They are the most nutrient-rich part of the animal, high in vitamin C, potassium, iron and magnesium, however it’s advised not to eat them too often as they contain purines, which form uric acid — a normal body waste product — when oxidised.

How are sweetbreads cooked?

Though you're more likely to find them in restaurants, it is possible to make them at home — you'll probably have to ask for them to be ordered in to your local butcher.

So, how do you cook sweetbreads? How do you prepare sweetbreads? If you’ve got this far and you’re still on board, the first — and absolutely crucial — step when cooking sweetbreads is to soak them in cold water, milk or buttermilk to remove the impurities.

Next, you blanche them in boiling water and shock them in ice water to remove any remaining membranes on the outside, then they’re ready for your recipe, which usually call for them to be grilled, braised, breaded, seared or fried, contrasting the rich meat with an acidic sauce.

Bon appétit.

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