What it is: There is no pretty way of saying this: Sweetbreads are the thymus or pancreas glands of calves, lambs and piglets. When raw, they appear to be a rather unappealing, globular, pink-tinged mass, covered in a thin membrane. Once cooked (often breaded and pan-fried), they retain a white and creamy interior that’s rich and delicious.
How I discovered it: I enjoyed sweetbreads for the first time back in college, in my hometown of Vancouver, B.C., at the fancy-schmancy restaurant Lumière. At the time, I was entirely green to the whole fine-dining experience, and felt painfully self-conscious and awkward as the youngest diner in the room. When the seared sweetbreads arrived, nestled in spoonfuls of truffled lentils, I dug in cautiously. With each bite, I lost myself in the dish, and those previous misgivings about fine dining evaporated. When I spooned up that last bite of sweetbread, I was convinced: I wanted to be a food writer, so I could share that sort of revelatory experience with more people.
How to use it in the kitchen: Some home cooks are intimidated by sweetbreads, because they require a bit of prep work before cooking. After you’ve rinsed the sweetbreads, there are two schools of thought to choose from. Some recipes will have you soak the sweetbreads in milk, while others will have you soak them in acidulated water (water to which citric acid or vinegar is added). Either will work. After a few hours of soaking, rinse the sweetbreads, then peel the membrane away with a sharp paring knife and separate the lobes into 1- to 2-inch nuggets. If you’re using veal sweetbreads, they’re fantastic simply breaded and fried for a quick and easy dish—like this month’s recipe, Crispy Sweetbreads with Tarragon and Lemon. Beef sweetbreads are tougher and will benefit from a quick poaching in court-bouillon to tenderize before proceeding.
Where to find it: Veal sweetbreads are available at A & J Meats & Seafood on Queen Anne (2401 Queen Anne Ave. N; 206.284.3885) at $16.95 per pound.