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Sweetbreads for the Uninitiated

  • r

My best friend and I are headed to wine country near the Russian River in northern California in a couple of weeks. We have reservations at what appears to be a lovely little French bistro type restaurant one night (Mierpoix in Windsor, CA). The menu looks wonderful...from mussels to foie gras to frites to....sweatbreads.

I read a couple of posts on various travel sites that said Mirepoix makes excellent sweetbreads. They serve them braised with frites and maitre d'butter. For a few dollars more you can add sauce bordelaise. Sounds intriguing. My problem? I've never had sweetbreads.

For some reason I'm really tempted to try this dish. But I would hate to order something I ended up really disliking. I'm not a picky eater. The only thing I don't really like are beets (they taste like dirt to me!). I'm fine with tongue and pates and chicken liver (I've never had beef liver). I've even had turkey "rocky mountain oysters" and thought they were great!

What would I expect with sweetbreads? The texture is very soft, isn't it? What about flavor? Any descriptions that might give me a better idea would be greatly appreciated...from both folks who like them and folks who don't.

I know there's no real way of knowing without trying for myself, but I thought this might be an interesting discussion.


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  1. As you say, a soft texture. The flavour is quite mild; a bit creamy. I think a sauce bordelaise would overpower them and, if it was me, would stick with the butter.

    I'm not passionate about them. Happy enough to eat them as part of, say, a tasting menu. Might order them as a starter (say on some salad). Wouldnt order as a main.

    1. I love them. Order them whenever I can. Soft? Yes. Taste? A bit like liver, but somewhat less intense. Guessing that if you like chicken liver (unless you're talking about a preparation like chopped liver that masks both texture and flavor) you might well like sweetbreads. Beef liver might be a better test. Why not cook yourself some before you go and see whether or not you like it?

      1. The texture to me is like a cross of soft tofu, and custard. More on the tofu side, IMHO. The 2 times i've had sweetbreads they were out of this world delicious, and it was also my first time ever to eat organ meat. I love it! The tase was very mild and non-offensive. I'd rush to order it again and again! I don't think you'll be dissappointed.

        1. I love sweetbreads, I've been serving and eating them for for 30 years now.
          My favorite way to eat them is first blanched,sliced, then lightly floured and pan fried crispy. At that point I find them to taste remenisant of crisp bacon with a creamy center.
          Give them a try, I hope you enjoy them.

          2 Replies
          1. re: chefstu

            Creamy and ...meaty, in an intriguingly gentle way. BTW, Chefstu...mention of flouring those slices of sweetbreads reminded me that I've been experimenting with using potato flour for some meats...I'll bet it'd work pretty well with sweetbreads.

            1. re: chefstu

              Hey Chefstu, my husband and I just returned from Neuvo Vallarta, north of Puerto Vallarta, and ate at our favorite restaurant near the resort; La Portena, an Argentinian steak house. We love the place (ate there 2 days in a row) and I figured we would try the 'argentinian style sweetbreads'. I had seen the ingredients on an Iron Chef and thought ...'why not'. I can only say....FANTASTIC! We all ate the appetizer with abandon and got over quickly where the meat actually came from. I am eager to make it but need some help. The method I think closest to what I have read is sliced thin and cooked on an open fire. That is how this place cooked, over open wood fires. Can you give some detail as to how you have prepared it over the many years you have cooked it. Please be specific on prep as well. I want to be successful in my early attempt. Thanks!

            2. Fried sweetbreads remind me of Chicken McNuggets (the old style "chicken loaf" kind) except with a softer texture inside and a stronger taste.

              1. Agree with most of the posters. I find the taste quite mild ( not beef liver) and the texture is softish/creamy. Most stronger sauces would overpower and a saute with slightly crispy outside is excellent. I have had them served with fried oysters which is an interesting combination, both soft, mild flavors and creamy but complementary.

                1. Given my post elsewhere on this board about distate for livers, sweetbreads I learned to like as an adult. They taste like poached marrow to me, another favorite (adore osso buco). I agree the sauce Bordelaise sounds like overkill as they would mask the delicate taste. They are best served fried or sauteed in bread crumbs or breading and their creamy texture is a contrast to the crunchy exterior. Quite rich and a little goes a long way.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Diane in Bexley

                    The comparison to marrow is most apt. Sweetbreads are rich and creamy much in the same vein as marrow. And a simple breaded sweetbread with beurre noisette would be my idea of heaven.

                  2. The descriptions of the other posters are excellent. I love them. I think if you tolerate tongue and chicken liver, you should be ok with the texture of sweetbreads.

                    The only mild warning I'll mention is the following (now remember, i love them). Sometimes, after a whole plateful of sweetbreads, my mouth will feel like it is coated in a thin layer of fat. This usually only happens if the sweet bread is not well-prepared, and it happens after eating a bunch. I don't like this texture a lot. But it is a rare occurrence. I associate this texture with eating brain, and so I don't eat brain much anymore.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: moh

                      For your further info on sweetbreads: in Europe, particularly France, they are a mainstay of haute and bourgeois cuisine and often found on restaurant menus. In France they are called ris de veau (calves' rice!) for no apparent reason, and are rarely served fried or breadcrumbed. There, they are most often braised (after cleaning and blanching) and served with a white wine and veal sauce, maderia sauce or other light accompaniment. The sauce highlights the delicate flavour of the offal (I agree with the bone-marrow simile), while breadcrumbing and frying masks it. Stick with the butter sauce - I'm sure you'll love them.
                      A classic dish you will often see in French butcher/delis is bouche a la reine ("the queen's mouthful"), a combination of sweetbreads and mushrooms in a veal cream sauce in a puff-pastry. Buy it, take it home and heat it up - a great little TV dinner, though it is usually intended as an appetiser!

                      1. re: Piggyinthemiddle

                        Nice post but you may be confusing "ris" and "riz". The latter is the word for rice. "Ris" is just a food name for the thymus gland (much as in English speaking countries they are referred to as sweetbreads instead of thymus glands). Ris de veau are veal sweetbreads but you could also have ris de boeuf (beef sweetbreads). I am addicted to them and much prefer them fried than braised as I find the texture contrast is one of the best thing about the dish.

                    2. In Mexico... they are special Street Food (inherently more rare than say Loin steak or Beef Cheeks for obvious reasons but still fairly common Taco filling)... when I've had it the texture when cooked on the griddle is reminicent of a good German Veal sausage.

                      I don't think there is anything particularly bizzarre about them... but they do go along way.... a Taco or an Appetizer is the perfect amount... I get sick of them when the portions or too large.

                      1. Love sweetbreads: rich, creamy, custardy, with a subtle delicate flavor. The mouth feel reminds me of a perfectly coddled egg or a raw oyster; the flavor I can only describe as "meaty."

                        I can only describe them as "succulent."

                        1. Thanks for all the descriptions...I think I'm going to give them a shot...I'm feeling rather adventurous! The ones at the restaurant are braised...I'll skip the bordelaise though so the sweetbreads aren't overpowered by the sauce.

                          Thanks again!

                          1. I had sweetbreads at Prune in NYC for the first time this summer. I really didn't want to order them, but one of the men I was with loves them and insisted. They were easily the BEST thing we ate that night (and we ate a LOT!) The texture was soft, but still meat-ish, and the flavor was pronounced, but not overpowering. SO GOOD!

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: lulubelle

                              I had sauteed sweetbreads in Marsala sauce at the Del Rio diner in Brooklyn Monday night. Delish. Took half home for breakfast Tues.

                            2. I think it is the least exotic tasting of the organ meats. To me it tastes and looks very much like high quality milk fed veal. Not at all gamey, some what rich. I LOVE sweetbreads!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
                              I bet you will too.

                              1. I'm so glad I found this thread. I was chatting with another 'hound who's never had them. I'm forwarding this thread to her.

                                BTW, I really detest chicken and calves' liver and love sweetbreads. I don't think there's any similarity in taste. And yes to the simplest presentation. A very aggressive sauce would overwhelm IMO.

                                1. Bases on what you've stated, I'm sure you'll like if not love them.

                                  1. A very belated response to this post. I've tried two kinds of sweetbreads, and the experiences were very different. The thing to keep in mind, uniformly, is that sweetbreads are very soft and membranous, and for that reason tend to soak up whatever sauce or flavor surrounds them, so your reaction will depend to a large degree on how they are prepared. My first experience I had at a Lebanese restaurant that prepares lamb sweetbreads (Elie's in Birmingham, MI). Here they are absolutely dynamite, one of the best entrees I've ever had in my life. The restaurant cooks them in a white wine-garlic-lemon butter sauce, and I'm not sure how they are prepared, exactly, but they come out with char marks on both sides that suggest some sort of grill, and the restaurant staff insists that virtually no other establishments in the U.S. cook them in this manner. The texture itself is pliable, like eating very soft gristle that melts in your mouth. I loved them so much that I went back to get them on several occasions. Another
                                    experience at a different restaurant was less memorable. I ordered sauteed beef sweetbreads cooked in a velvety red wine and mushroom sauce at an Italian place (Roma Cafe in Detroit). In terms of appearance, these resembled chicken livers. The texture was essentially the same as that of the lamb sweetbreads, maybe a tiny bit firmer, though the flavor, as one might imagine in the sauce I've described, was virtually overpowered by the sauce. I still enjoyed them, but not as much as the Lebanese dish.

                                    1. late, I know... I'm going tonight, of course, and the menu offers veal sweetbreads "jump in your mouth" wrapped in prosciutto and sage... since I've never tried sweetbreads, would this combination of flavors overwhelm or even ruin the experience?

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: aklein

                                        A take on Veal Cutlet Saltimbocca. Sounds delicious to me. Sweetbreads are all about texture. Aklein- did you order them?

                                      2. I agree with the other posters. They're similar in taste and texture to the mountain oysters. Try them sauteed and finished with cognac or orange liqueur flambe.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: mucho gordo

                                          I like sweetbreads quite a bit when prepared correctly. When i do them at work, I usually soak them in water for about 12 hours, changing the water as often as I reasonably can.Then they go into a brine for about an hour. Then, they get trimmed up and cleaned. Then soaked in milk for a few hours and finally poached in the milk, then cooled. Finally, they're simply dredged in flour and quickly sauteed in some butter.

                                          Done right, they are very tender, with a nice creamy texture, and a mild flavor. They go extremely well with shellfish like lobster and scallops(especially), so think of what you'd like with seafood. A creamy lemon sauce is good, or something with blood orange... sorrel works well, and even if you made like a fennel chutney, that'd be good too.

                                          If you're leery of trying them on their own, they're good in ragouts of whatever, like mushrooms especially.

                                          1. re: jrock645

                                            Thanks for all this detail. I love sweetbreads but haven't been impressed with my cooking of them tho' I've followed recipes from 'worthy' authors. What you do sounds really good.

                                            1. re: jrock645

                                              I do mine almost the same way but don't use the milk as the soaking or poaching liquid, just water.