Sweetbreads Are Not Sweet Nor Bread
A student post from the International Culinary Center
By Danielle Marullo, Professional Culinary Arts Student at the International Culinary Center
Lucky for me, I have passed level 1 of the Professional Culinary Arts program and have begun Level 2, where we begin to utilize all the basic techniques and skills we have obtained to create more advanced and unique dishes. At the start of this level you make some familiar proteins such as chicken and veal, but then as each class progresses the meats seem to get more and more unfamiliar, or obscure for some. It is wild to see my Chef-Instructor standing at the front of the room with a loin of deer meat several feet long, or a massive cow bone and knuckle that look as if they came from the Prehistoric era … I am talking serious Jurassic Park looking things. In the beginning all the proteins seem so different and some are very intimidating, but as you progress, you start to appreciate any cut of meat. Each week you grow more and more comfortable with handling and preparing even the strangest meats without making a face of disgust or fear. I think that is one of the most important skills you obtain in culinary school that you cannot really learn anywhere else. I have eaten venison and quail and rabbit many times before in my travels, but culinary school has given me confidence that I can prepare just about anything you throw my way.
One of the classes I will never ever forget was the Organ Meat day. Growing up in an Italian household I was used to eating Tripe which is cow stomach, but that was the extent of my organ meat consumption besides chicken liver pates and foie gras. When flipping through the textbook before class, I saw that tongue was on the menu and I suddenly got a little nauseous, but I knew I had to brave up.
The class began and the first recipe written on the board was Ris de Veau, which in the US we call sweetbreads. As an avid Food Network watcher, I have seen Sweetbreads prepared and enjoyed by many celebrity chefs and judges on food competition shows, but I never truly knew what they were and what they tasted like. After doing some research it seems as if no one really knows where the name sweetbreads came from, but I guess any name is better than fried pancreas, ay? There it was in front of me on my cutting board, it didn’t look like bread, nor did it smell sweet. In fact, it looked like a human brain and had very little odor. I came to find that sweetbreads are actually the pancreas or thymus gland of an animal, in this case a veal. They are somewhat of a delicacy because as the animal grows up their “sweetbreads” disappear.
To prepare the sweetbreads, we first peeled off the excess membrane covering the flesh that looked almost like little pieces of plastic wrap. We then sliced it on a bias into 1/2 inch thick slices making sure to trim off any visible blood particles. Next, we “paner a l’anglais,” which is a three step breading technique we had utilized several times before. We dipped the sweetbread pieces into flour, then seasoned beaten egg and breadcrumbs and then pan fried them until they were golden brown and crispy on the edges. We served the sweetbreads with silky, rich, goat cheese polenta and an equally as rich brown butter caper sauce. Now it was time for the taste test. My partner and I prepped ourselves as if we were about to take a shot of tequila. We looked at each other fiercely in the eyes, grabbed a piece of sweetbread with our bare hands and quickly popped them into our mouths. I first felt my teeth sink into the fantastic crunchy breading which was flavorful and perfectly seasoned. Then, my teeth bore the tender sweetbread inside the breading, and to my surprise it was undeniably delicious! My tongue instantly began to salivate from the creamy, rich texture of the organ, I was a happy girl! The flavor reminded me of my grandma’s famous breaded chicken cutlets, but had a much more tender, soft consistency. Sweetbreads are a great way to wean yourself into the organ meat family because of its mild flavor. I am pretty sure you could feed them to a child and they wouldn’t flinch one bit.
After the Sweetbreads we moved on to Calf’s Liver with onions and a beautiful demi-glace and then finally the dreaded tongue. The tongue looked, well, like a tongue…a human tongue. And of course being the very curious student that I am, I asked my chef if the human tongue was similar and his response was, “Do you think I know what a human tongue tastes like?” I set myself up for that one, that’s for sure. The order in which the lessons are taught and the order we make the dishes seems is very strategic. Going from chicken to live lobster to beef to venison and then to rabbit actually made the transition into organ meats much easier. The organ meats are obviously some of the most intimidating and “gross” for us Americans, but after breaking down a rabbit and a sweetbread, the tongue and kidneys felt less obscure and more appetizing.
We boiled the tongue in water and aromatics for several hours until it was tender and brownish gray in color. We then peeled off the outer membrane and the “tastebuds” off the cooked tongues and thinly sliced them like any normal cut of meat. We stacked the meat on top of a creamy fingerling potato salad and drizzled the plate with a delicate but acidic vinaigrette which cut through the richness of the tongue beautifully. When I put the first piece of tongue on my tongue (well that’s funny to say), I found that it tasted like a really tender, juicy piece of lamb shank or chop.
In conclusion, I now have a whole new outlook on organ meats, but let’s see how I feel in level 4 when I make head cheese … if you don’t know what head cheese is, well let’s save that for another day.
This blog post was originally published by the International Culinary Center (ICC), founded as The French Culinary Institute (FCI). In 2020, ICE and ICC came together on one strong and dynamic national platform at ICE's campuses in New York City and Los Angeles. Explore your culinary education where the legacy lives on.