Today we’re talking sweetbreads, which may be the most poorly named cut of meat out there. There’s nothing sugary or carby about this meat, but goodness are sweetbreads delicious when prepared correctly.
In the states, sweetbreads are usually found in upscale or ethnic restaurants (e.g. Argentinian cuisine), but diets like paleo, whole30, and keto have sparked renewed interest in meats like sweetbreads, and we’re all for it. Why? Because sweetbreads are deeply nutritious and serve as the perfect introduction to eating offal.
Offal is just the generic term for organ meat. So things like the liver, heart, brain — you get the idea. The reason why sweetbreads are such a good gateway to offal is that they don’t suffer from nearly as much of that musty taste that offal is known for.
What are sweetbreads?
Sweetbreads are cuts of meat from either the thymus gland, located in the throat, or the pancreas gland by the stomach, in lamb, veal, pig, or beef. They have a rich, creamy texture and are often served roasted or fried.
Why the definition can be confusing
Defining sweetbreads is harder than you may think. The different types and cultural definitions can often leave people with incorrect ideas of what they’re getting when they buy sweetbreads.
For example, many French chefs, who have a fierce devotion to offal, don’t consider pancreas sweetbreads (also known as “chest sweetbreads”) to be real sweetbread. When they refer to sweetbreads, they are only referring to the thymus gland. They balk at the idea of eating the pancreas, and cultural definitions like this are what make this topic a bit confusing.
Chefs and eaters alike argue over the integrity of pancreas sweetbreads, but either way, thymus sweetbreads are the more desirable option. Most people prefer the texture and taste — referring to it as a softer and tastier cut.
Throat sweetbreads vs. heart sweetbreads
Another confusing aspect of sweetbreads is the difference between throat sweetbreads and heart sweetbreads. Both throat and heart sweetbreads are taken from the thymus gland — they just refer to specific parts of the thymus.
Eric from Culinary Lore puts it well:
The heart sweetbread is attached to the last rib and lies near the heart, although the name may refer to its shape as much as its location. The heart sweetbread is round and compact and are more desirable than the throat sweetbread, which comes from each side of the animal’s neck. Both parts are connected via a long thin strand of thymus tissue that runs down each side of the throat.
The nice round shape of the heart thymus makes it easier to slice evenly. The throat sweetbreads are longer and less compact. Neither, however, are one solid piece, but rather are a collection of nodules connected by membranes.
Since heart sweetbreads have a rounder shape, better texture, and less fat, they are considered the best type of sweetbread. So if you’re paying a super high price for a sweetbread dish, now you know what to ask — see if it’s heart sweetbread!
What do sweetbreads taste like?
While the specifics will vary according to the animal and cut, we like to describe sweetbreads as tender, rich, creamy, and succulent. Sweetbreads are most often found alongside stews and pâtés — essentially pairing sweetbreads with any creamy sauce or rich broth will do!
Why are they called sweetbreads?
According to Wikipedia, the word “sweetbread” is first attested in the 16th century, but the etymology of the name is unclear. “Sweet” is perhaps used since the thymus is sweet and rich-tasting, as opposed to savory-tasting muscle flesh. “Bread” may come from brede, “roasted meat” or from the Old English brǣd (“flesh” or “meat”).
Sources of sweetbreads
As mentioned, sweetbreads come from four main sources, calves, lambs, pigs, and older cattle.
Veal refers to the meat of a calf, and compared to beef (the meat of a cow), has a lighter color, a finer texture, and is typically more tender. Nothing beats the flavor and texture of a grass-fed, veal sweetbread cooked to perfection.
Lamb is one of the most popular sources of sweetbreads, only second to veal. The texture and flavor of the throat sweetbread, in particular, are preferred by many. Be a little adventurous this week and try our lamb sweetbread!
Beef sweetbread isn’t as common since it’s not as tender as veal but it’s still very tasty. Our supply is limited, so be sure to grab beef sweetbread when it’s available!
Pork sweetbread is the least popular type of sweetbread. While still edible, pork sweetbreads suffer from tougher and greasier textures.
Nutritional benefits of sweetbreads
Offal (remember that organ meats = offal) is well known to be nutrient-dense, and sweetbreads are no different. While you need to be careful about the amount you have, sweetbreads do offer some nutritional benefits.
Sweetbreads are considered “the most nutrient-dense part of the animal,” said Dr. Jennifer Jackson, an internist at Ascension Via Christi Health. “Indigenous cultures would serve organ meats to women of childbearing age to boost mom’s nutrition.”
Sweetbreads were also an integral part of our ancestor’s diets, and they are rich in minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins like A, E, and K [*].
Here’s the nutrient breakdown of a 4-ounce (113-gram) beef sweetbread [*]:
- Calories: 267
- Fat: 23 grams
- Protein: 14 grams
- Carbohydrate: 0 grams
- Potassium: 11% Daily Value (DV)
- Vitamin C: 64% DV
- Iron: 13% DV
- Cobalamin: 13% DV
- Vitamin B-6: 10% DV
- Magnesium: 4% DV
As you can see, sweetbreads are rich in Vitamin C, which can help high blood pressure and provide healthy antioxidants, Vitamin B-6, which helps create red blood cells and may fight chronic disease, and potassium, which supports blood pressure, cardiovascular health, bone strength, and muscle strength [*].
Nutritional downsides of sweetbreads
While sweetbreads contain their fair share of vitamins and healthy fats, they are extremely high fat and contain purines, so they shouldn’t be considered a staple food. Purines are bad because when your body breaks them down, they turn into uric acid, which can contribute to gout [*].
Sweetbreads are delicious and provide beneficial nutrients like Vitamin B-6 and potassium. Just treat sweetbreads like any other fatty cut of meat, and as long as you buy organic, grass-fed options and eat them in moderation, they can be a great addition to your diet.
Fitting sweetbread into your diet
Adding sweetbread to your diet is easier than you may think. There are so many ways to cook sweetbreads, and almost all of them will turn out delicious! Your best bet is to buy grass-fed sweetbreads and then pick a recipe that includes the prep work needed to cook sweetbreads.
We’ll cover a bit of that so you can get an idea of that process.
Always prep your sweetbreads
After you buy sweetbreads, you’ll need to do a bit of prep. People vary on what they think is necessary, but it’s pretty easy.
The general approach to preparing sweetbreads is to soak them in cold water for anywhere from 3 to 24 hours to get rid of any blood. Our advice would be to do it before you head out to work for the day, and if you can, change the water a time or two.
After that, all you have to do is simmer them until they are barely cooked and then throw them in an ice bath. After they’ve cooled down, take a knife and get rid of any gristle, tubes, and membranes (optional) you find. It’s a bit like preparing a fish.
Here’s a great guide on preparing sweetbreads to get you started.
How sweetbreads are typically served
Sweetbreads are super versatile, but serving them in a creamy sauce or fried is always a good bet. And even eating them simply with some lemon and capers on a bed of vegetables can go a long way. The possibilities are endless — all you have to do is start experimenting!
Here’s a delicious sweetbread recipe to get you started.
The bottom line
Sweetbreads are so rich and tasty when prepared correctly, and you can absolutely make them at home. They are a fantastic addition to your diet when eaten in moderate quantities, and they are the perfect gateway to the somewhat esoteric world of offal.
Try the best sweetbreads from 100% grass-fed and finished cattle
US Wellness takes pride in raising the best cattle in the most humane, natural way possible. Our cattle are sustainably raised, 100% grass-fed and grass-finished, and aren’t fed any hormones, GMO feed, or antibiotics.
It’s meat the way it should be, and believe us, you’ll taste the difference.
See our grass-fed sweetbread options!
Nathan Phelps is a writer, ethical foodie, and outdoors-aficionado hailing from Nashville, TN. He splits his time between helping sustainable businesses find new customers and managing his ever-increasing list of hobbies, which include playing guitar, baking bread, and creating board games.