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Sweetbreads (molleja) -- misconceptions? Any other fans?

I just returned from a trip to central Mexico where I was lucky enough to indulge in a lunch of grilled veal sweetbreads (served on a searing hot "plancha"), which I rarely see here, but seemed somewhat common down there.

As served to me, they were sliced up nicely and deliciously grilled, but unfortunately, I had to pick through a lot of membrane and fat which I prefer to have cleaned off.

One thing I'm curious about is how OFTEN the misconception came up in conversation (with Americans) that sweetbreads were brains. Have many others run into this falsehood?

I also always thought that sweetbreads were the thymus, but have since read that they're often the pancreas as well. Is one more common? Are they interchangeable? Do you know if you're getting one or the other when you buy them?

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  1. sweetbreads, I've found, refers to both the thymus and pancreas in American cooking. I am not positive, but I think they're located together so that's why they're sold together. One piece is made up ofa group of bumps that are sort of like grapes, is the best way I know to describe it, and the other piece is flatter with a more homogenous structure.

    1. The Wikipedia seems to have a somewhat different idea...

      "Sweetbread is the name of a dish made of the thymus (neck/throat/gullet sweetbread) or the pancreas (belly/stomach/heart sweetbread) or genitalia of an animal younger than one year old. These animals are usually piglets or calves."

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweetbread

      Interesting etymology suggested in a related link:

      "They're called sweetbreads for the obvious reason that if you called them thymus glands or whatever you couldn't give the damn things away. The art of euphemism goes back a long way."

      http://www.straightdope.com/classics/...

      However, this one sounds more plausible:

      "We always assumed they were called sweetbreads as a euphemism (kind of like Rocky Mountain oysters!), but also as a reference to the very rich flavor and consistency. We probably weren't far off on the rich flavor part. The sweet element is thought to come from English sweet as the thymus and pancreas are sweet and rich. The bread element, on the other hand, is now thought to come from Old English bræd "flesh", so that sweetbreads are simply "sweet flesh", versus the more savory muscle flesh that is usually consumed because it is more plentiful. The term dates from the mid-16th century.

      Pancreas, by the way, comes from Greek pan "all" and kreas "flesh". John Ayto says that this was because the organ was of the same consistency and substance throughout. Pancreas dates in English from the 16th century, like sweetbread. Pancreas sweetbread is also known as stomach sweetbread, while the thymus is called throat sweetbread. Both refer to the location of the gland in the animal (pancreas in the abdomen and thymus at the base of the throat). "

      http://www.takeourword.com/TOW176/pag...

      1. I had "molleja" just outside of Hidalgo, Mexico and it was one of the best things I've ever eaten. I suspected that it was a sweatbread dish, but since I don't speak spanish, and it was rather seared, I could only conclude that it was mystery meat.

        I crave it still.

        5 Replies
        1. re: jamsy

          Exactly. Sweetbread preparation(s) vary from butcher to butcher and from chef to chef.
          It's 'mystery meat' until you look inside and taste it for yourself. Sometimes the meat is
          so charred that it can be unidentifiable. This can be quoted as being FUBAR, but I like a nice char on mine, especially when dealing with organ parts I would otherwise avoid.

          1. re: jamsy

            I've never heard of "molleja" but when living in Bahia (Salvador, Brazil) I had a dish called "moela" which I believe was a regional specialty but almost certainly contained no sweetbreads. It was charmingly translated on the English menu as "stewed chicken guts" and that's basically what it was-- a chicken gizzard stew: hearts, livers, stomachs and the like. It was awesome and I ate it every chance I got. Since we seem to have some very promising food historians and etymologists in the mix online, and given the linguistic parities between Spanish and Portuguese, I was wondering if anyone out there knew of any connection between the two dishes (and where I could find them in NYC!). In response to jamsy, I can only say that I do actually speak both Portuguese and Spanish but that didn't really help with the Brazilian menu. The entry on the Brazilian menu consisted of a single word: Moela. Like you were supposed to know exactly what that entailed and which you probably would if you had grown up there. Either way, it was delicious and I know it was about organ meat, but it couldn't have been sweetbreads because those come from calves and this was a chicken deal. So I'm wondering out loud, why are the names so similar if they're not actually related culinarily? Unless, of course, it's just a generic "offal" thang.(By the way, my Spanish and Portuguese aren't textbook perfect, and Portugal Portuguese differs from Brazilian Portuguese much the way that Mexican Spanish differs from Argentine Spanish, which differs again from Catalan and Castillian. So I'm likely dropping tons of stuff through the cracks.) Even so, any help out there?

            1. re: diropstim

              No connection btw molleja and moela.

              More on moela in the links below.

              http://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moela

              http://www.chefonline.com.br/passo/pa...

              1. re: RicRios

                Thanks RicRios! Never thought I'd ever actually get to try making moela at home, but the recipe provided certainly gives me hope, and the wikipedia link was most informative.

                1. re: RicRios

                  Hello RicRios!

                  There is a definite connection between 'molleja' and 'moela' they are the same but in diferent languages Spanish and Portuguese, respectively.

                  ENGLISH SPANISH PORTUGUESE FRENCH GERMAN
                  ------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                  Sweetbread Mollejas Molejas Ris Kalbsmilch(Bries)
                  (--They are all the Thymus Gland--)
                  Gizzard Molleja Moela (Pipis) Gésier Kaumagen
                  (Birds use it to "mill" difficult stuff such as cereals and grains)

                  Personally, I don't like either on account of the texture.

                  Hope I've helped clarifying the subject.

                  Regards.

                  Ralph

            2. My first taste of sweetbreads was on the Lower Eastside of New York in a restaurant called the "French Romanian" (why..I'll never know.. I think it might have been kosher or kosher style)...when the sweetbreads came out ( I loved them then...I still do!) people tittered a little when someone asked what they REALLY were...I was very perplexed and my older sister said in a stage whisper that could be heard in Staten Island...."they're your Balls!!!"...so this bit of incorrect information (why would my sister lie?) stayed with me for a goodly number of years...not that it EVER stopped me from ordering them...and in fact if they are on the menu, they will be in my mouth! Hell, if a dog can do it...

              1. I'm a great fan of sweetbreads, but have never tried making them at home. I believe the ones I've had in restaurants are the thymus gland, but of course don't know for sure. The most memorable preparation was in a little bistro at the foot of the "breakneck stairs" in Quebec City - simply grilled with a great maple glaze. The thymus gland is an organ that calves are born with, but as the animal matures it disappears. That's why it's always referred to as coming from a calf - older animals simply don't have them.

                1. Sweetbreads in the United States are virtually always the thymus gland, because the FDA has made it illegal to sell the pancreas as food (they are used, supposedly, for research purposes for diabetics). In most latin american countries, you can get either - but they're not generally sold interchangeably - we refer to them as mollejas de cuello (or sweetbreads from the neck, the thymus glands) or mollejas de corazon or de panzo (sweetbreads from the heart, or stomach, which are the pancreas).

                  1. If I'm not mistaken, most sweetbreads served in restaurants in the US are pancreas. They tend to be larger so they are easier to work with, more appealing (by appealing I just mean simply bigger; who wants to eat a long skinny looking thing!) and thus give a better result.

                    1. As far as the confusion with brains goes, they do kinda look brainy (brainish?) In French cuisine they are usually relieved of their outer membranes ( Kinda like cleaning monkfish-- very time consuming and meticulous work, but essential to the overall refinement of the finished product) and then weighted down or pressed for 12 to 24 hours to mitigate the spongy texture and make them acquire more of a "meaty" mouthfeel. Some people then poach them briefly in milk (ostensibly to mitigate some of the gaminess) before grilling or pan-frying. Mmmmmm, thymus gland....

                      1. Unless something has changed recently HD, no, sweetbreads in the U.S. are virtually always thymus glands rather than pancreas because of FDA regulations - yes, the pancreas ones are bigger, more appealing, and actually tastier, but they're not (or at least weren't as of a couple of years ago when I was working in New York) legal to use.

                        As far as the poaching goes, it doesn't really eliminate the gaminess - it does draw out some of the blood that might still be in the glands, but mostly it just creates a better texture in the end - kind of like blanching vegetables and then cooking them afterwards.

                        1. Mollejas are also chicken gizzards--as, I believe, are moela (in Portuguese). Here in Spain, there are also pork, lamb and beef/veal mollejas.

                          1. united states restaurants only serve the thymus gland.

                            confusion arises as to what part of the animal this comes from, because there is a thalmus gland in the brain, which acts as sort of a sensory gate-keeper and relays messages to the limbic system and pituitary glands. its most well-known function includes determining our "fight-or-flight" response and releasing adrenaline.

                            and fyi to ricrios, i wouldn't necessarily rely on wikipedia for the most factual and reliable information. it's convenient and the breadth of it quite good, but you've basically got a bunch of amateurs as self-appointed experts noodling away. it's a good springboard, but unfortunately i've encountered too much erroneous info (not just about food) to rely on it.