One of my irregular offal-themed posts (see main post Tail to Nose Eating):
For those that are not aware, sweetbreads are a type of offal and come from the thymus, situated at the base of the throat, of either calves or lambs. For this reason they are often called throat sweetbreads. The thymus produces T cells which help us to attack any pesky germs that try and make us ill. The pancreas is commonly sold as heart or stomach sweetbreads, there are other rarely used sweetbreads too such as tongue and cheek sweetbreads. Most people think that sweetbreads are the testicles of calves and lambs; in fact, very rarely are testicles sold under the name of sweetbreads, they are more commonly sold as fries or stones.
Don’t be put off by the thought of eating a gland – they taste light, with a suspicion of iodine and do not have a strong offal flavour. If you are new to offal, or fear it a little, sweetbreads are a good place to start I reckon. But why are they called sweetbreads? Well, they are sweet because they taste richer and sweeter compared to typical meat, and they are bread because the old English word for flesh is bræd.
Sweetbreads were once very, very popular, but have now died a comparative death. Though, like many of the old forgotten cuts of meat, there is a slight resurgence, but nowhere near the dizzy heights of the 18th and 19th centuries. Almost every meat dish seems to have been decked out with breaded sweetbread garnishes. In those days; they were cheap and they were plentiful and they were delicious. Sweetbreads are not the easiest of cuts to get hold of these days, with most of them being snapped up by restaurants, and the few that get to your butcher are snaffled very quickly by those in the know. This, in some ways, in a good thing – they become, not a mere garnish, but the star of the show, something to be savoured. In Jane Grigson’s book Good Things, they have a whole chapter to themselves!
Sweetbreads are best served simply: grilled or fried alongside some dry-cured streaky bacon. Sweetbreads love bacon. They also love black pudding and sweet vegetables such as beans and peas.
I got lambs’ sweetbreads from my butcher WH Frost in Chorlton. For some bonkers reason we can’t sell British calves’ sweetbreads in this country, but we can sell those that have come from mainland Europe.
Preparation of sweetbreads
Whether you get calves’ or lambs’ sweetbreads they first need to be soaked in salted water for a few hours. This gets rid of any impurities. If you can, change the water a couple of times, but it is no big deal if you do not.
Next, the sweetbreads are poached. This can be in simple salted water, but more normal is a light stock such as chicken or vegetable or in a court bouillon of herbs and vegetables.
Simply pop your sweetbreads into the water or stock, bring to the boil and simmer gently for five minutes. Remove, drain and cool before removing any gristly bits. The tricky part is doing this whilst keeping them whole.
If you like the blogs and podcast I produce, please consider treating me to a virtual coffee or pint, or even a £3 monthly subscription: follow this link for more information.
Fried Sweetbreads with Peas and Broad Beans
This recipe is great if you’ve never cooked with sweetbreads before – they are sliced up, so if they do fall apart when preparing them, it doesn’t matter. This recipe is also a very quick dinner – taking only 10 minutes or so to cook. I don’t think it needs to be served with anything, except perhaps a slice of wholemeal bread and butter. By the way, there is nothing wrong with using frozen peas and beans here. This recipe is adapted from The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and it serves four people.
around 150g (6 oz) garden peas, fresh or frozen
around 150g (6 oz) broad beans, fresh or frozen
3 tbs olive oil
100g (4 oz) dry-cured smoked streaky bacon, cubed
500g (1 lb) prepared lamb’s or calf’s sweetbreads, sliced
plain flour seasoned extremely well-seasoned with salt, pepper and a little Cayenne pepper
1 garlic clove, very finely chopped
salt and pepper
Plunge the beans and peas into boiling water for one minute, then drain and tip into cold water. Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the bacon begins to crisp.
Meanwhile, toss the sweetbreads in the seasoned flour and tip them into the pan along with the bacon. A minute later, add the garlic and fry everything a nice golden brown. Tip away any excess oil and stir in the beans and peas. Cook for another minute, season with salt and pepper and serve piping hot.
21 responses to “Sweetbreads”
I love sweetbreads, especially the way they are cooked and served in French restaurants. So many things are off-putting if you delve into where they come from… Some things are best not studied too closely :). I enjoyed the post, though!!
Ha! Thanks. It’s funny – I used to be quite a squeamish eater as a yuong man, but now I’ll eat and enjoy almost anything!
I’ll have to try this. Just found your site through the shortbread. So, fitting that my next read was sweetbread, even if there is absolutely no connection. I’ve been wanting to try one of Hugh’s recipes for sweetbread for a while. I’ll take your post as a sign. Maybe with the favas coming in I’ll have a chance! Thanks!
Glad you like the blog!
This is such a simple recipe and really shows off the subtly-flavoured sweetbread’s iodine flavour. I’ve just found a recipe for sweetbread pie, I’ll give it a try and write a post on it…
Hi this is a very informative post thanks. You obviously have a detailed source but there is some discrepancy here – the thyroid and the thymus are two distinct and very different organs (I know this as I’m a vet). The thyroid is what you say it is, but the thymus is a fatty organ in the front of the chest which plays a role in the immune system in young animals. The things you have a picture of are almost certainly thymus, not thyroid gland, based on my anatomical knowledge. I think (and this is from my own source rather than because I know for sure) that sweetbread is usually thymus – I don’t know if thyroid is ever eaten – although from your source it clearly may well be. I’m not sure where that leaves the idea that they have a iodine taste as this would be more relevant to thyroid.
Yes you are indeed correct! For some reason I thought they were interchangeable terms. And to think I have a biology degree. As soon as you brought it up, it all came flooding back. Thanks for correcting me: there’s nothing I dislike more than being wrong!
Pingback: Favourite Cook Books no. 2: Good Things by Jane Grigson | British Food: A History
“just a suspicion of iodine”… very nicely put. We make a very similar dish, though generally saute the sweetbreads rather than fry them, but the crispiness must be very satisfying. Might I make one suggestion? The addition of something acidic to cut the richness of the dish. Either plain old lemon juice or sherry vinegar work really nicely.
Cheers for the tip. This is my favourite sweetbread recipes, but there are more that I’ll eventually put on the blog. I have a recipe for a surprisingly good sweetbread pie on a more recent post:
Pingback: Grilled Lamb Sweetbreads with a Warm Dandelion Green Salad | We Are Never Full
Very interesting, I wound up here because I was wondering what pudding really meant in England.
Glad you found it interesting. I keep meaning to write an update to these posts as I have found out a lot more information about them
Pingback: Thyroid issues and genetics | Genetic Lifehacks
My mother use to make a dish called “liver hash” from the butchering from hogs. It contained the liver, heart, lights(lungs) sweetbreads, kidneys, brains and whatever my “Daddy” brought home.……yes I’m a southern American. It was very good. You just consumed it and didn’t think of what it contained. It has been a long time since I had it. Most people don’t butcher anymore. Have seen it here…..America……in grocery stores. The price is ridiculous. Fond memories! Just found your site and like to compare to American terminology. A big THANK YOU!
Hi Sandra! Thanks for your comment; glad you found the blog. Liver hash sounds great, there’s nothing in that I wouldn’t eat. When I started the blog I was living in the USA; first in Houston, TX and then St Louis, MO so my terminology is all over the place if you look at early posts!
I recently read in a memoir about sweetbreads on toast for breakfast in the 1900s USA. Do you know if this was typical or unusual? Would this be a common food item at the time or expensive? Wondering if this was an upper class food or more widely enjoyed…
LikeLiked by 1 person
It was very typical to eat sweetbreads on toast. They would be fried with bacon or devilled. Lots of roasted meat joints were garnished with them too. They were not particularly ecpensive, but definitely preffered by the middle and upper classes.
Hope that answers your question!
The thymus and thyroid are two separate glands. Your article is incorrect.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Gah! I know and I totally forgot to correct it. Thanks for reminding. The reason I got confused is that my references were also confused…with some saying sweetbreads are the thyroid and others saying thymus. I can’t seem to find anywhere that is definitive…
Sweetbreads = thymus or pancreas. Not thyroid.
I can’t find any references that say it is thyroid, apart from your article.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Ha! Y’know it used to say thymus, but then someone convinced me i was wrong so I changed it. I fact checked and found something that agreed. Now I can’t find the ref.