When I asked a friend if she’d ever had sweetbreads, she told me she’d once eaten pound cake. Alas, the reaction to sweetbreads is often extreme—love ’em, hate ’em, or find yourself in need of clarification.
If you’ve heard of the culinary nose-to-tail movement, which strives to use every part of an animal when cooking, you’re likely familiar with offal, the pieces that have “fallen off” the butcher’s block when sectioning the prime cuts. Those often ignored trimmings—liver, tripe, kidney—also include sweetbreads, specifically the thymus gland or pancreas of veal or lamb.
But sweetbreads, unlike liver, are incredibly mild, with a surprisingly tender and approachable texture. In fact, it’s been suggested that their name is derived from Old English, with “bread” taken from the word meaning “meat” or “morsel,” and sweet referring to the mild taste. Though they take a bit of time to prepare, it’s easy to do at home.
To begin, find an accommodating butcher and order one pound of sweetbreads. Soak the sweetbreads (which will look like a rather large mass) in a refrigerated bowl of water for at least four hours, or overnight. Bring a salted pot of water to a simmer, strain the sweetbreads and poach them gently for five minutes before transferring them to an ice bath. When cool, remove the surrounding membrane with your hands—don’t worry if it doesn’t come off in one large piece, just remove as much as you can. Break the sweetbreads into one to two inch-sized portions, and season with salt and pepper.
From here, you can prepare them anyway you like, though classically, they’re pan-seared. In a skillet set over medium-high heat, sear your sweetbreads in a few tablespoons of olive oil until browned on all sides, and finish with a large dab of butter and a squeeze of lemon. For a heartier meal, spoon them over sauteed spinach or mushrooms, or alternatively, eat them alone, finished with a spoonful of capers and a few sprigs of minced fresh parsley.
Still on the fence? Skewer and grill them, or if you’re feeling very adventurous, dunk the sweetbreads in buttermilk and toss them in flour before deep frying at 350 degrees. After all, when in doubt, it never hurts to look south of the Mason-Dixon Line.