Sweetbreads are neither

Oh how I procrastinate experimenting with innards. As much as it may seem that I’m adventurous with food because of the theme of my blog, I have never been an organs person.

But there’s this new butcher near the end of our street that is highly fancy and expensive, and although I can’t break the bank and shop there all the time, they have some cool stuff. Like pork blood. (What does one do with… don’t worry, I’ll eventually let you know). So for some reason, maybe because it’s pricey and pristine, I feel like I can trust their innards enough that if I cook them it won’t turn me off. I’ve always wanted to give sweetbreads a go because people who actually enjoy eating guts seem to prize them. That’s where their name comes from – “sweet,” as in, “sweeeeeet,” (said like a surfer). The bread part of the name is from the Old English word “broed,” meaning “flesh.” Anyway, I figured that if I could stomach (pun not originally intended) the best of the entrails, I’d look super cool to all of you guys, and you’d think I eat this kind of thing all the time. That I’m truly dangerous.

Not me. Gaga. But oddest example of "dangerous," I could find. Thanks gigwise.com

Not me. Gaga. But oddest example of “dangerous,” I could find. Thanks gigwise.com

So is it working?

Sweetbreads are the thymus gland of a calf or lamb or young pig – they degrade in older animals, so you have to get ’em young. I don’t love the idea of eating the young’uns, but I figure they’re likely not axing them for the thymus, so it’s really just taking advantage of what might otherwise be thrown out (plus my conscience clears quickly if something tastes really good). The thymus is responsible for T-cells which are the immune system’s army, so although I didn’t read this anywhere, I’m going to put my pseudoscience hat on (everybody’s doin it) and say that it’s good for you.

Now you’re probably thinking, “Where are all the jokes, Ann? This post is a little too educational for me.” Well since you asked… If sweetbreads are ripe for the cooking, apparently they should feel like a firm, young breast (Odd Bits says that Chef Daniel says so).


Sadly, this knowledge made me defensive of my own bosom. ie. “But I’m sure that mine are just as good as any thymus gland…” No volunteers for verification, please, this isn’t that kind of blog. But hopefully neither your sweetbreads nor your breasts feel like Lady Gaga’s in the picture above. If your glands feel like guns, please ask your butcher and your plastic surgeon for a refund.

Let’s move on. This whole recipe went down in a rather complicated way, so I’ll try to abbreviate it.

1. I bought my frozen sweetbreads, deciding to thaw them while my husband was away so that I wouldn’t get complaints after answering “Hey, what’s for dinner?” Sometimes I get complaints if the answer is “fish,” so somehow I knew that “glands,” wouldn’t be warmly received.

2. I sorted through recipes, reading that most traditionally, sweetbreads are done in a mushroom cream sauce. Score. If I was going to eat these suckers, the more decadent the surroundings the better. It’s hard to hate fat.

3. I found some odd dried mushrooms at the farmer’s market called matsutakes. As we all know, Odd is great. I’ve been wanting to learn to rehydrate mushrooms for the ‘ol blog, so that was a double score. Unfortunately for me, they are a highly prized mushroom by the Japanese and are hard to find, so they were $15 for a wee little baggie, and I was too embarrassed to say no when we were exchanging money. The same forager-market-guy had also just gotten his hands on some wild leeks which were cheaper, apparently collected by First Nations people. This recipe was getting better and better. As long as the sweetbreads didn’t suck. And as long as my husband didn’t find out I spent $20 on dried mushrooms and a handful of leeks. Don’t worry, I paid cash (untraceable).

IMG_6392 IMG_6394 IMG_6398

4. I started soaking stuff. The mushroom instructions ($3 per word) said to soak in cold water for 5-40 minutes, but even at the end of 40 I found that some were stiff in the middle. I waited. At the same time, I soaked the sweetbreads, which need to be in salt water for 4-6 hours, changing the water a few times.

IMG_6399 IMG_6401

5. I put the kids to bed. Now it was dark, which sucks for food pictures, but even more importantly, the dark brings out the raccoons. I hate raccoons, and I planned to grill. I knew I’d end up arm wrestling them for the sweetbreads. I survived only by using my wily evasion tactics (tongs carefully brandished as a potential jabbing and/or smacking weapon) and I accomplished my mission.

6. Here is the rest of the recipe.

Wild mushroom and leek cream sauce

  • 1Tbsp butter
  • Handful of wild leeks, using whites and light greens only. Chop.
  • 2C chicken stock
  • Mushrooms soaked in cold chicken stock 1 hour, and then chopped (soaking in hot will leave them chewy) **Reserve mushroom liquid
  • 1/2C dry white wine
  • 3/4C 18% cream
  • Pepper

Directions: Melt butter in skillet over med heat. Sautee leeks, 2 mins. Add drained, chopped mushrooms. Sautee until fragrant, 3 mins. Add wine and simmer until nearly gone. Add cream and pepper and reduce briefly to desired consistency.

Grilled Sweetbreads

  • Sweetbreads to serve 2 people, soaked in 2C water with 2tsp salt, 4-6 hours, changing water a few times
  • Mushroom liquids from earlier soak
  • 3Tbsp butter, melted for basting

Directions: Remove membrane from sweetbreads as best you can (it’s a bit like the membrane on the back of ribs, but more delicate, and so annoying). Bring mushroom liquids to a boil and add sweetbreads. Turn a few times until slightly more solid and opaque, about 3 minutes. Remove and brush with liquid butter. Grill until more firm, about 5 minutes per side, basting once if you choose to taunt the raccoons with your presence. Top sweetbreads with mushroom cream sauce.


Results: Apologies for the picture – no natural light when I finally finished this recipe at 10. But yum! I expected to be disappointed, but I ate the entire bag of $15 mushrooms in the sauce. The leeks were extra special too, so be sure to find or grow some. This was a very simple, quick sauce to make with limited ingredients. I also ate a lot of the sweetbreads, which tasted like meaty scallops. I would order them at a restaurant, and might even cook them again. Who knew? Rating: A very surprised 3 yums

Question: Which gut meats would you dare to try?


  1. Leave a Reply

    Mike @ Gentleman Homestead
    May 14, 2014

    1. Seems like it wasn’t that long ago you said you wanted to try up some sweetbread but were nervous. Good for you and I’m glad it turned out. I recently re-read the Odd Bits recipes for sweetbread. I really need to get on cooking something out of there, but don’t know of any cool local shops you seem to have.

    2. Leeks, ramps, and especially chives are crazy simple to grow… even indoors in small jars on a kitchen windowsill. Easy to snip off with scissors for fresh cooking and the stuff keeps on regenerating. Let me know if you’re interested and I can send you some links if you don’t want to Google for yourself. (I almost choked on my beverage when I saw $5 for that pictured bunch.) 🙂

    3. Hypothetically speaking, where does one find “that kind of blog”? Please and thank you.

    • Leave a Reply

      Ann Allchin
      May 14, 2014

      1. You may not have as many cool shops, but I bet you have buds with lots of fresh animals… I know your dangerous cooking will scare Joanna very shortly.

      2. You just made me decide to grow leeks in our garden. I am not the gardener myself, but I do have editorial control over our little square in the back corner. These ones were extremely tasty. It was actually $5 for twice as much – I saved half for later. But yes, that is probably a rip-off. I like supporting our farmer’s market, but it ain’t cheap. I think they all drive their veggies to my hood in Bentleys and then park around the corner so that none of us see.

      3. I’d check the Internet red light district for that kind of blog, but not sure if you’ll have any luck. I hear the Internet is quite Puritan in nature…

  2. Leave a Reply

    May 14, 2014

    I do say, those pictures are looking gorgeous 🙂

    • Leave a Reply

      Ann Allchin
      May 14, 2014

      Why thank you. I recently went to a photography workshop with this really hot chick.

  3. Leave a Reply

    Trevor "The Burger Nerd" Davis
    May 15, 2014

    Very cool post Ann – I’m thoroughly impressed! I’ve never tried sweet breads before and I have to say I’m nervous about the notion. But seeing you take it on like a champ (despite a few clandestine maneuvers) kind of inspires me to try it one day. Now I’m not saying next week you’ll see a recipe for a sweet bread burger….nor am I on my way out the door to go buy some. But should fate pull me and sweet breads together, I’m going to remember this post and at the very least try a few bites. Who knows, I might end up loving them. Thanks for sharing your sweet bread journey as well as making me laugh along the way.

    • Leave a Reply

      Ann Allchin
      May 17, 2014

      Thanks burger nerd! They were good, honest. People used to think so “back in the day,” too, but they’ve gone out of fashion, which is always a good indication that something is worthwhile. It’s the things I’ve never heard of people eating around here that I think to myself, “Oh, well that’s why – it tastes blech.” Looking forward to the gland burger!

  4. Leave a Reply

    May 19, 2014

    Ann hi!! I laughed so much with your article!! I’d like to make things just a little bit freaker; I looked the word sweetbreads in my awsome Webster dictionary and it says plainly that is the pancreas of an animal!!
    No sweat, here in Greece we eat and enjoy immensely all types of entrails. We make famous delicacies with them like kokoretsi which consists of lambs intestines wrapped around heavily salted lamb’s liver!! So yes, I have eaten and enjoyed many times, lamb’s liver, big bowel and kidney!!

    • Leave a Reply

      Ann Allchin
      May 19, 2014

      Wow! Do you like kokoretsi?? Your dictionary is only half right, I’m afraid. Apparently pancreas is a cheaper stand-in when they can’t find a thymus gland, so you have to clearly ask your butcher which one his sweetbreads are. They say the French are disgusted at the thought of eating pancreas even though they enjoy many other innards. Thanks for popping by!!

  5. Leave a Reply

    May 19, 2014

    That’s interesting that you soak the mushrooms in cold water and not hot! We usually soak our dried shiitake ones in regular water (whatever temp the tap is at the time) overnight, or do hot if short on time.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>