You'll Probably Never Guess What Sweetbreads Actually Are

If you know, you know. And if you don't, you're in for a big surprise. Let's talk about sweetbreads: They're not sweet and they're not bread. In fact, they're about as far as can be from the toasty cinnamon rolls you may be imagining. According to Ask Nigella, sweetbreads fall into a broad category of varietal meats, along with heart, tripe, brains, liver, and kidneys (via Recipe Tips). Also known as offal, it's the all-inclusive description for organ (as opposed to muscle) meat. The term sweetbreads, a subset of offal, usually refers to the thymus or the pancreas harvested from young calves or lambs, occasionally pigs.

Unless you're an adventurous eater or a world traveler, you've probably never sampled sweetbreads. While they're popular in some pockets of the United States (especially in New Orleans, according to Eater), sweetbreads aren't commonly found in mainstream American supermarkets. Why? We're guessing perception. Once you know what's on your plate, it's difficult to get past pre-conceived notions. Heck, even an early episode of Bravo TV's "Top Chef" contributed to the uphill battle sweetbreads face in the U.S. According to Just Hungry, a memorable Quickfire challenge in 2006 required chefs to create a dish from "leftovers," meaning everything left over after a butcher carved out all the muscle meat (steaks, chops, roasts, hamburger).

Leftovers: It just doesn't ring the (dinner) bell.

Give sweetbreads a chance

In a perfect dining world, we'd approach every meal with an open mind. How often have you turned up your nose at a dish based solely one its description or the prevailing consensus among your inner group, then tried it ... and liked it? All we are saying is give sweetbreads a chance. Imagine tasting New Orleans dishes like pan-fried sweetbreads with smoked farro, candied pecans, and pumpkin with a country ham reduction at Patois or sweetbreads with house-made linguini, chanterelle mushrooms, and brown butter at Carrollton Market (via Eater) without a pre-conceived bias against the main ingredient.

Supply-side metrics aside, beginners may want to forego sourcing sweetbreads at a specialty or butcher shop to cook at home in favor of a professional preparation. Getting it right can be complicated. According to AllRecipes, it's an absolute must to soak sweetbreads in acidulated (that means adding a touch of acid in the form of lemon juice or vinegar, according to Merriam-Webster) milk, cold water, or buttermilk prior to cooking. AllRecipes also suggests a second prep step — blanching the sweetbreads — before moving onto your preferred cooking method. Chefs Resources concurs and goes so far as to suggest soaking sweetbreads for up to 24 hours, a process known as degorging, to get a milder flavor.

So about that sweetbreads misnomer. Turns out it's not that far-fetched. According to Taste, it may derive from the 16th century Old English word "bræd," meaning animal flesh, combined with a sweet description of the succulent protein.