Here, Eat This: A Beginner's Guide to Offal

Categories: Here, Eat This

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Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Chef de cuisine Adam Dorris serves bloody good blood sausage at Revival Market.
Thanks in large part to the fact that "awful" is a homonym for "offal," there's no terrific English word to refer to the entrails of an animal -- the tender, delicate bits that were, until a few generations ago, still regarded as some of the most prized cuts of a cow or pig.

The sweet organ meats that are still prized across the world go by many names. Esteemed food writer Harold McGee uses the rather delicate and old-fashioned term "variety meats" when discussing them in his books, while my favorite handy reference guide -- The Food Lover's Companion -- notes that these variety meats include both "animal innards and extremities."

What neither mentions is how delicious and how underappreciated offal is.

Leaving aside the obvious fact that slaughtering an animal to only use a few of its parts is shamelessly wasteful, offal offers other benefits aside from being a tasty, responsible way to consume all the parts of an animal that someone worked hard to raise. Organ meats like the heart, tongue, kidneys and liver are low in calories but very high in vitamins and minerals -- especially B vitamins, iron and potassium. (They are also high in cholesterol, however, but the nutrient-rich, protein-packed servings mean you don't need to eat very much to get a health boost.)

Other offal meats such as tripe offer protein, vitamins and minerals with very little fat or cholesterol attached to them. And still others -- like trotters, sweetbreads, cheeks and tails -- are simply a luxurious blend of sumptuous fat and meat that's more addictive than the way cheese melts onto a hot hamburger patty.

Regardless of the reason you eat offal, there's a variety meat out there for you.

Note: I've tried to loosely organize the list of offal below from most approachable to...more exotic. As always, your mileage may vary.

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Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Beef sweetbreads at Feast.
Sweetbreads

The sweetbreads are most often the pancreas and/or thymus gland of a calf or lamb. These tender little bits are my personal favorite parts of the animal, with a texture and flavor that's light yet rich -- entirely different from that of muscle meat. Sweetbreads are also, in my opinion, the most approachable of all offal. Although sweetbreads have been eaten throughout human history, the term itself dates to the 16th century although etymologists aren't exactly sure of its origins. In An A-Z of Food and Drink, John Ayto posits "it would seem to reflect the glands' reputation as prized delicacies (unusual amongst offal) which survives to this day. It is possible that the second element represents not modern English bread by the Old English word broed, meaning 'flesh'." Sweetbreads aren't difficult to find in Houston, where they're often sold aboard taco trucks as mollejas, with Taqueria Tacambaro's mollejas as a particular favorite. To try the French take on sweetbreads -- a.k.a. ris de veau -- head to Brasserie Max & Julie, Cafe Rabelais or Mockingbird Bistro. More and more chefs are using them in modern applications too, such as the sweetbread and grits at Sparrow or sweetbread panzanella at Provisions.

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Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Barbacoa at Gerardo's.
Barbacoa

If you've been thinking all this time that barbacoa was simply Mexican barbecue, you're...slightly wrong. Yes, the shredded meat is cooked in a pit for a long period of time. But real barbacoa comes from the whole head of an animal (usually a cow or a lamb) which means you're getting a taco full of face meat -- in particular the lovely, fatty cheeks. The best place in Houston to try real barbacoa is at Gerardo's, where the meat market serves its barbacoa tacos on Fridays, Saturday and Sundays. These days, most other restaurants and taco trucks buy the cheeks separately and stew them instead of cooking an entire head. But Gerardo's still does it the old-fashioned way every week.

Liver

This is pretty self-explanatory, and there likely isn't a kid in Texas who wasn't force-fed liver and onions at some point in their lives -- and are probably still cringing at the strikingly metallic, mealy flavor. The key to liking liver is to buy/eat liver from a young animal -- a calf or a lamb, for example -- so that the organ is still tender and relatively free of the toxins that build up over an animal's life and impart that noticeable "livery" flavor. You have to make sure it's cooked correctly too, as Harold McGee notes in On Food and Cooking: "Because their connective tissue is fragile, their muscle fibers short and their fat content relatively low, they generally should be cooked as little as possible." The result will be a dish that's light in flavor and fat, but rich in nutrients and a dense, nearly creamy texture.

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29 comments
ragazza_007
ragazza_007

My new guilty pleasure: Batanga's pig ears!

tinyhands
tinyhands

"slaughtering an animal to only use a few of its parts is shamelessly wasteful"

I think it's shamefully wasteful, but shame is relative.

tendmybarhouston
tendmybarhouston

I've tried all these dishes+ more. You have to aquire a taste for them.

Anse
Anse

For folks interested in offal, I highly recommend obtaining a copy of The Foxfire Book. It's a multi-volume series of interviews and how-to instructions on every aspect of old Appalachian life and it's absolutely fascinating. In one of the volumes--Two, I think, but I'm not sure--they tell you how to slaughter and butcher and prepare and preserve a hog from nose to tail, with photographic illustrations (not for the squeamish!), and recipes for every single part of the animal except maybe the eyeballs. There's even a recipe for the lungs! (You boil them down until they're a mush and eat them like a thick soup.) I have no plans to ever eat lungs, but if I'm ever starving and the opportunity arises, I'll know how to cook them. 

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

Having only considered liver cooked wrong--it's evil for anything to smell the way liver smells when cooking but taste the way liver taste when done--I'm less than enthusiastic (sp?) to try it the "right" way.

VinWeasel
VinWeasel

house special sculpted kidney, or fried kidney at mala sichuan. also their many other items using all the tasty bits of animal.


Kathy Stabe
Kathy Stabe

I'm going to disapprove of promoting eating foie gras. Force-feeding animals is not cool. A lot of people, chefs included, have been boycotting foie gras for years. Other than that, I will say this article really changed my mind about trying some offal dishes. I have always been afraid to try them because of what they are. I thought offal would taste awful (har har). But you made it sound so tasty, I'm definitely going to go check out a few of the dishes and restaurants you recommended. I did have blood sausage while in Spain, and it was DELICIOUS. It kind of blew my mind, and I haven't been able to find it anywhere since. The best blood sausage is from Burgos, but I will have to try the Pampa Grill.

JimWashburn
JimWashburn

1. La Michoacana taquerías do a lengua en salsa verde that is dynamite. 

2. Chicken hearts cooked just like fried chicken, i.e., soaked in buttermilk and hot sauce, dredged in seasoned flour, and pan fried are sensational.

neilquan
neilquan

Oxtails are amazing. The most amazing thing ive ever eaten.

glennaa
glennaa

Kidneys, sweetbreads, trotters, ears, tripe, all easy to buy at Fiesta. Have you tried kidney butterflied and cooked on the grill? That's how they do it at an Argentinian asado.

gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

All I want to know about offal is sausage, and I'm ok with that..

guurl
guurl

Be sure to try the beef heart carpaccio at Cove - it is DELICIOUS!

Michael Myers
Michael Myers

'Thanks in large part to the fact that "awful" is a homonym for "offal"...' I object! It's ɒfəl vs. ɔːfʊl.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editortopcommenter

@tinyhands How about "wantonly" wasteful? The shameless way most meat is wasted is shameful.  :)

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editortopcommenter

@AtothegoddamnedK I've never tried them! I would feel weird encouraging people to try something I've never had myself. Although the first chance I get to try them, you know I absolutely will.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editortopcommenter

@Anse I've always wanted to try lungs, but they're very difficult to find in the U.S. They were declared unfit for human consumption in the 1970s and are now contraband, as weird as that sounds. I will definitely check out that book, however. Sounds awesome.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

@MadMac I tried it at Feast, and it still tasted too much like liver.  Only time I've ever liked it was deep fried with tobasco at Bellaire Coffee Shop.

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

My old man would killed to get in there. He LOVED kidneys and liver.

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

I'll take your word for it.

tinyhands
tinyhands

@kshilcutt Only place I've ever seen "calf fries" on a menu is at the Caddo Street Grill in Cleburne, TX. It was only offered as a full entree, so I didn't order it and cannot attest to the quality. (The food I did order was merely adequate, not exceptional but not slop either.) Next time you're on a roadtrip to Dallas, it's only a slight detour on the other side of 35W.

JimWashburn
JimWashburn

@kshilcutt @Anse About 10 years ago I participated in a hog slaughter. We made whole-hog barbecue South Carolina style, and I made a hash of the head, heart, liver, and lungs after they had cooked on the pit for a while.  The lungs did not have any particularly strong flavor, and their texture was lost, as the hash cooked down to a sort of thick gravy and was served over rice.  I think the hash would have been better if I had included some of the pig blood, but by the time I had the thought the blood and other waste had been fed back into the hog pen.

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

I mean it smells WONDERFUL while cooking. That's like a cruel joke--Shena was a man, Solient Green is people, and liver tastes like LIVER. WTF?

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

Don't feel bad. Genius that I am remembers spouting  off to the old man, "didn't we imigrate to the states so we could eat meat instead of guts?" and never considered foi gras or Oxtails.  

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