What Are Sweetbreads?

First off, sweetbreads are strictly not sugary breads and you may be surprised to find out what they are after ordering them from a restaurant menu.

Sweetbreads is a term for offal, particularly organ meat from a young lamb or veal that has a mild, almost creamy flavor with a smooth texture.

What Are Sweetbreads?

The revelation that sweetbreads are actually offal should not put you off as they can be an acquired taste. Should you see them featured on a menu then it may be time to try them, once you fully understand what they are.

In this guide, we will ask; what are sweetbreads? We will also look at why they are called sweetbreads, their taste, as well as how to prepare and then cook them

What Are Sweetbreads?

Sweetbreads are offal, specifically the organ meat that comes from the pancreas and thymus gland. You can expect to find sweetbreads that have come from veal, known as ris de veau, and lamb, known as ris d’agneau.

However, you can also find pork and beef sweetbreads though these are less common than veal and lamb.

The sweetbreads that originate from an animal’s thymus gland are typically from the neck, gullet, or throat. In older animals, you should only expect to find sweetbreads that are from the pancreas.

This is certainly the case for pork and beef as the thymus will be replaced by more fibrous tissue so it does not get used.

Other glands that can (rarely) be used as sweetbreads include the testicles, ovaries, sublingual glands such as the tongue, and parotid glands like the cheek or ear. 

Why Are They Called Sweetbreads?

Sure, the name of sweetbreads can sure be confusing. It can conjure up visions of brioche buns and milk loaves yet sweetbreads are strictly offal.

The name is thought to have come from the flavor of the meat which is known to be sweeter rather than savory. 

Sweetbread is thought to have originated as a foodstuff in the 16th century. There is also a thought that the bread part of the term is actually from the Middle English term ‘brede’ which means roast meat.

The Taste Of Sweetbreads

Should you be yet to try cooked sweetbreads, you may be intrigued by how different they taste from sweet breads. Though they are still meaty, this offal cut fails to have the same musty flavors.

That’s largely down to the preparation steps of soaking and then blanching them. The flavor is reassuringly creamy and mild with gamey notes so you can include them with acidic and decidedly rich sauces.

How To Prepare And Then Cook Sweetbreads

Should you be tempted to cook sweetbreads yourself at home then ask your butcher for a few choice cuts. There are some specific preparation steps which simply have to be taken to ensure that the sweetbreads are fully enjoyed.

Once you have retrieved your sweetbreads from the butcher, you will need to remove some impurities.

The further preparation steps include soaking them in liquid, blanching them in boiling water, and then shocking them in ice water, you can also cook them in a variety of ways.

  1. Soak the sweetbreads in cold water, though you can use buttermilk or plain milk.
  2. Blanch the soaked sweetbreads in boiling water.
  3. At this point, you can chill them and then press them into a standard thickness but this is an optional step.
  4. If you are happy with their thickness, quickly transfer the sweetbreads to a bowl of ice water to shock them, firm the flesh, and make it easier to move any tough membranes.
  5. Take your pick for the cooking method as you can grill them, braise them, bread them, sear them, fry them, or deep fry them. Sweetbreads cook very quickly and you have to make sure that you do not overcook them.
  6. Serve them with a citrus or acidic sauce to counteract the richness of the offal itself.

You can expect to find sweetbreads served as an appetizer on their own. However, they can also be the star of the plate so you can have them as a main course.

In that case, you should expect some side dishes to come with it and for the sweetbreads to be served with some rich sauces. 

What Are Sweetbreads? (1)

Final Thoughts

It can be a shock once you realize that sweetbreads are in fact meat and, particularly, offal from a young lamb or veal.

They are considered a culinary delicacy, largely due to how specific their preparation is as it involves soaking them, blanching them, and shocking them which all has to be done quickly.

If you are intrigued to try them then you are probably best ordering them in a restaurant as the meat is so delicate, it can be easily spoiled at home.

However, if you do want to prepare them at home then be aware that they take a short time to cook so keep an eye on them. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How Are Sweetbreads Prepared In Different Cuisines?

The method of preparing and cooking sweetbreads can vary. However, you can expect them to be soaked and then poached to remove the outer membrane.

For instance, in Iran, you can enjoy them as a street food in the form of a kebab whereas in Mexican cuisine they are served with a salsa verde.

In Turkey, they are often served in bread whereas in Latin America, you may find them grilled, then floured, and pan-fried. 

Why Is It Important To Cook Sweetbreads From Young Animals?

Certain cuts of meat, like offal, tend to come from young animals as you can expect a lighter color and a more delicate flavor. As the animal, like a lamb, ages then the meat becomes tougher and the color becomes less desirable.

Those that enjoy sweetbreads as a culinary delicacy tend to enjoy those from milk-fed calves and veal. 

Mark Williams
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