Let's get this first fact out of the way: sweetbreads are not sweet breads. Sweetbreads are considered offal, and sweet breads are, well, breads that are sweet. Knowing the difference will save you from an unwelcome surprise in either direction.
But what are sweetbreads, and why do people eat them? Because they're delicious! Here's what they are and why you should be adventurous and try them.
I first encountered sweetbreads a few years ago when I was a judge for a local lamb cooking competition. After sampling some cold, mediocre, and downright bland dishes, my expectations had plummeted. Until I came upon the team who had, smartly, brought a deep fryer with them and were offering fried lamb sweetbreads, crispy and hot.
One taste and I fell in love with those little lamb nuggets. They had a firm-yet-tender texture that provided a great contrast with the crispy outside. I don't remember if they won the contest that day, but I do remember voting for them.
I usually only eat sweetbreads at restaurants, but decided to try my hand at making them at home recently. Here's what I learned!
What Are Sweetbreads?
Sweetbreads are an organ meat from the thymus gland and pancreas. The easiest sweetbreads to find are from veal, ris de veau; or lamb, ris d'agneau, although beef and pork sweetbreads are also available.
What's With the Name?
It's a bit unclear where the name came from, but the rumor is that some think that the flavor of sweetbreads is more sweet than savory. I'm not sure if I agree, but the name has stuck.
How Do You Prepare Sweetbreads?
Soaking is the first step in the preparation of sweetbreads to remove some of the impurities. I soak them in just cold water, but others use milk or even buttermilk.
After the soaking, sweetbreads are blanched in boiling water and then shocked in ice water to firm up the flesh. This doesn't usually cook them through, but it does make it easier to remove any remaining tough membranes on the outside. Once blanched, classic technique calls for them to be chilled and pressed into a uniform thickness, but it's not a necessary step.
Finally, sweetbreads can be grilled, braised, or my favorite way, breaded and seared or fried. They cook quickly and actually are quite forgiving since they can't really be overcooked. To counteract the richness of the meat, many recipes serve the sweetbreads with an acidic sauce like lemons and capers.
→ Get a recipe: Pan-Fried Sweetbreads Piccata
What Do Sweetbreads Taste Like?
To me, sweetbreads don't have the musty flavors that other types of offal often have, probably because they are soaked and blanched first. The texture is extremely smooth, tender and moist, and the flavor is quite mild and creamy. The outside crisps up easily, and they play nicely with both rich and more acidic sauces.
Although the preparation of sweetbreads involves too many steps for them to be a weeknight meal, they're a fun project to tackle on a weekend to enjoy with a nice glass of crisp white wine. If you've never had sweetbreads before, take a leap of faith and give them a try!
Have you ever tried sweetbreads?