If we asked you to name a few meat-based dishes, sweetbreads probably wouldn’t make your top ten.
This unusual delicacy is arguably one of the most slept-on meaty dishes in the world, probably because once you know what it is, it can sound pretty unappealing, and confusing.
However, there’s a good reason why sweetbread is so popular in European in countries like Italy and France and today, we’ll be exploring why. Here’s everything you need to know about sweetbreads.
What Are Sweetbreads?
Don’t let the name fool you: sweetbreads are, in fact, nothing to do with bread. They’re organ meat. Yes, you heard that right.
Sweetbreads are made from two organs: the thymus (often called the throat sweetbread), which comes from the immune system, and the pancreas (often called stomach sweetbread), from the digestive system.
Sweetbreads are usually sourced from veal or lamb, and veal sweetbreads are the most popular. Here are the four most common types of sweetbread:
Lamb sweetbreads are probably the most popular type of sweetbread, and they’re made from the pancreas or thymus gland of a young sheep(see also: What Is Mutton?). Lamb sweetbreads usually offer a much milder and creamier texture.
Beef sweetbread is made from the thymus gland of a mature cow. The flavor of the gland tends to change as the animal ages, so these sweetbreads will taste different from veal.
The texture will also be different, and beef sweetbreads tend not to be as tender or supple as other young meats.
Pork is not as popular, but it’s still used to make sweetbreads. Pork sweetbreads are rarer, as they have a much fattier and chewy texture. Although some people find this appealing, it doesn’t offer the most authentic sweetbread experience.
Like lamb, veal is one of the most popular sweetbreads. Veal is sourced from calves (usually bull calves from dairy herds) that cannot be used in milk production(see also: What Is Oxtail?).
Veal sweetbread is often made from the heart, pancreas, or thymus gland of a calve, and it has a similar taste and texture to lamb. If you want the best veal sweetbread experience, we’d recommend choosing a grass-fed variety.
The term ‘sweetbread’ first appeared in a 16th-century book called The Historie of Man, which discussed how pleasant the thymus gland is to eat.
This is thought to be the earliest reference to sweetbread, and it was initially spelled ‘sweete bread’, also stemming from the old English word ‘bræd’, which was used to describe animal flesh. Despite this apparently English origins, sweetbread is usually associated with French dishes.
What Does Sweetbread Taste Like?
Unlike other offals (aka animal organs used for food), sweetbread doesn’t have as much of a ‘musty’ flavor. Sweetbread is blanched and soaked, to give it a uniquely smooth and tender texture.
As a result, it also boasts a delicate, mild, and creamy taste. Once cooked, the outside of the sweetbread becomes crispy, and it pairs beautifully with rich dressings. As the name suggests, they also tend to taste slightly sweet, with a less intense savory flavor than other offals.
However, tastes can vary. The taste (and texture) of your sweetbread will depend on which type of meat you’re cooking, the way it’s cooked, and the herbs, spices, and other ingredients you use to marinate them before cooking. Their texture can be most closely associated with tofu.
How Are Sweetbreads Prepped And Cooked?
Sweetbreads are not something you can just buy from your local store. This delicacy requires plenty of preparation and cooking, and you’ll need to follow specific instructions extremely carefully to ensure the meat is safe and appealing.
- Firstly, you’ll need to soak your sweetbreads in cold water for a minimum of five hours. You can also soak them overnight.
- Now, you can remove your sweetbreads from the cold water and dry them off with clean cloths or towels. This will remove any dirt, blood, or debris from your sweetbread, and prevent these from coagulating during cooking.
- Once cleaned, you can go ahead and season your sweetbread with your desired ingredients.
- When your sweetbread is seasoned, sear them in oil for approximately three minutes on each side until browned. This will evaporate any moisture in the flesh and give your meat a much firmer texture.
- Once seared, you can place your seasoned and seared sweetbreads in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit and cook for approximately 15-20 minutes. Remove your sweetbreads once they are firm.
- Now your sweetbreads are cooked, you can top them with a sauce of your choice, or eat them as they are.
What Should You Serve With Sweetbreads?
If you want to enjoy a traditional sweetbread, we’d recommend eating it as the French and Italians do, with a rich, creamy sauce.
Madeira, truffle sauce, brown sauce, or veloute sauce are the most popular options. Sweetbreads are usually served on their own with a rich sauce, or you can serve them with a side of vegetables.
Are Sweetbreads Bad For Your Health?
Sweetbreads are delicious, but they’re not all that healthy, and their consumption can carry risks. Bacteria such as E Coli can cause a number of foodborne illnesses if not prepared properly.
Your sweetbread should also be cooked thoroughly before consumption; although this is true for all meats, sweetbreads have a particularly high far content which can make them susceptible to contamination.
Improper processing methods can also cause reactions in some people, especially those with histamine intolerance.
If they’re cooked and prepared carefully, sweetbreads are an enjoyable addition to a balanced diet. They’re also high in HDL cholesterol (aka ‘good’ cholesterol), which can make them a healthier alternative to other meats.
Sweetbreads are also surprisingly low in calories containing between 300-400 calories per 100 grams. So, if you’re on a diet and seeking healthier, low-cal meats to add to your diet, sweetbread can be a great option. Sweetbreads are also high in protein, which is great for building and repairing muscle.
Despite their benefits, we’d advise you not to eat sweetbreads too often. Some varieties may contain contaminants that can be bad for your health.
Sweetbreads are not the most popular meat-based delicacy, but they are certainly one of the most enjoyable.
If you’ve never tried sweetbread before, we’d encourage you to try different meats to find what you enjoy the most. Could sweetbread be your new favorite meaty meal?
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