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| Cooking Tips & Tricks | A beginner's guide to cooking offal

A beginner's guide to cooking offal

“Enjoy what you are cooking and don’t be afraid, explore possibilities with all kinds of food.” - Fergus Henderson

Offal—the organs and other bits of an animal typically discarded by butchers—doesn’t always get the love it deserves. But even as the “whole animal” culinary movement has made offal somewhat trendy, most Kiwis aren’t cooking it on the regular. Why? Many of us just don’t know-how. Consider what’s below a beginner’s guide to offal—how each type tastes and feels, and what’s involved in preparing and cooking them.

LIVER

If you’re new to cooking organ meat, liver is a great place to start because you can easily sauté it with not much other than salt, pepper, butter, and some herbs. When you visit your butcher, ask them to slice the liver so you have a steak that’s about 8.5mm-1cm thick. Very strongly flavoured liver, such as ox liver, can be soaked overnight in milk to make the flavour more mellow before it is to be cooked. Before cooking you’ll also want to carefully snip and peel away the fine membrane covering the liver. After adding salt and pepper to the meat, a common way to cook liver is by coating it with flour to soak up some of the moisture and give it a nice crust. Get a nice hot pan, melt some butter, and and sear the liver on both sides over high heat, add a little sprig of fresh thyme, a clove of fresh garlic, and baste it while it sautes. And it’s a quick pickup — it’s only going to be a few minutes on each side. This Marsala and Mushroom Lambs Fry recipe makes great use of liver.

MARROW

There are two distinct types of marrow: bone and spinal. The latter is rubbery and thick, and you probably won’t find much of it. Bone marrow, on the other hand, is the gelatinous red-and-yellow material at the center of animal bones—easy to source and simple to cook. Roast it in-bone and it turns into a fatty, buttery mass that’s delicious spread on crusty bread or added to gravy as a thickening agent. Ask your local butcher to slice the bones length ways which makes it easier to scrape out the bone marrow once they are roasted. To add flavour we can look to pan-fry the marrow in butter with shallots, garlic, herbs, and lemon. If you’re looking to enhance the flavour of the marrow, ingredients with a strong umami flavour (think anchovies, stilton cheese, miso, or confit shallots) will work well. Lastly, consider pairing the bone marrow with fresh, sharp flavours to cut through the fattiness of the marrow. Jack Crosti’s Osso Buco recipe makes great use of bone marrow.

KIDNEYS

Kidney can be very strong-tasting, iron-rich and can sometimes even be a bit bitter. To offset this you want to match your flavours through adding pepper, mustard, and spices to enrich the taste and cook it at the right temperature. Kidneys cook best in butter or fat and you’ll want to fry them hot and fast to caramelise the exterior while keeping the middle soft and gently blushing. Kidneys have the earthy, gamey flavour of many other organs and one common and beloved modern preparation that makes for a good first taste would be deviled kidneys: Slice them in half, remove any fat, dust them with pepper-spiked flour, then fry them up in a gob of spiced, melted butter for a couple minutes and eat them on toast. Consider pairing kidneys with things like tomatoes, portobello mushrooms, or bacon. This Steak and Kidney casserole is a great way to ease into offal.

BRAINS

Delicately soft, creamy and fatty, in most preparations, they taste similar to butter, parsley, and capers. And brains are not all that hard to prepare either. Fresh brains need a good soak to remove excess blood and to loosen up a thin outer layer of membrane that needs peeling off. From there, you can do just about anything with them—sear them so that they’re crisp on the outside and custardy on the inside, mush them into a curry (as is fairly common in parts of South Asia), or even make them into a lush paste. While not all offal is suitable for frying, this cooking method does lend itself to offal that is smooth and creamy in texture like lambs brains. If you’re looking for a great recipe, you can start with MacLean Fraser’s recipe for lamb brains popcorn with chilli mayo.

HEART

The heart is a slightly more challenging bit of offal, given its more recognizable shape when purchased whole, and the fact that it is harder to find in your average store than liver. Yet it will likely be an easier sell than liver for many in terms of taste and texture. At the end of the day, the heart is just a muscle—though a very tough, dense, and chewy one given how hard it works. So it tastes, and can be prepared, like any other type of meat. You can even grind it up raw and serve it as a tartare, although it might be better to start by cubing, marinating, and threading the pieces on skewers and grilling them as is popular in South America. Most butchers will offer to clean it of any clinging external fats and chop it up for you if the shape of a heart bothers you, making it look like any store-bought chopped red meat. Here’s a great stuffed lamb heart recipe to get you going.

TONGUE

Another hard-working muscle, tongue tastes like other traditional cuts of meat, though at times with a hint of sweetness thanks to the amount of gelatin in the organ. It’s important to brine the tongue before cooking. The thick skin surrounding the tough and springy meat of a tongue peels right off, and the meat becomes tender when slow-cooked. From there, it’s a simple matter of cutting up the meat, frying it until crisp, and throwing it into something like a taco or sandwich. Tongue is a very rich, fatty cut so is best when paired with sharp flavours (think capers, mustard, or horseradish) or spice (Moroccan flavours work well here). I highly recommend Hannah Miller Child’s Beef Tongue Terrine recipe if you’re interested in cooking tongue.

SWEETBREADS

This category is broad. It encompasses all offal categorised as “sweetbreads.” Though their shapes are diverse, they have a similarly mild-to-neutral flavor and soft texture, and require soaking in water, saltwater, or vinegar before cooking in order to easily peel away from their exterior membrane. The light flavor and lack of rubbery texture make them palatable—especially when they are battered and fried, one of the more common sweetbread preparations. Cooked right, sweetbreads are soft, mild, creamy, and incredibly rich. If you like popcorn chicken, you’ll love sweetbreads. They pair well with sharp or acidic tastes such as capers, fennel, and lemon. This crumbed sweetbreads recipe by Jack Crosti is a great place to start.

TENDONS

You’ve probably encountered tendons when eating traditional meat cuts. In that context, it was probably a tough and chewy fiber, devoid of independent flavor to compensate for its annoying texture. But tendons can be a dish of their own, whether served cold and tough, or slow-heated to break them down into a quivering, gelatinous mass, often added to soups as a thickening agent. They soak up flavors like crazy, turning into intensely textured vehicles for spice blends, broths, and other tastes you want to highlight. If looking to have them in a broth, toss them into pho (a vietnamese broth) to kick up your soup’s savory flavour. Or if you want to experience tendons on their own, look into a Sichuan spicy beef tendon recipe: Braise the tendons in water, wine, spice, and soy until they’re tender, then cool them to firm them up, and cover them in a tongue-numbing peppercorn dressing.

TRIPE

A catch-all name for animal stomachs, which vary wildly in texture depending on the animal, tripe is common in dishes around the world. This may be because, like tendon, cleaned tripe is a little bland on its own but acts as a flavor sponge and welcome texture—offering a chewy edge to dishes like a soup or taco. Tripe is also tricky to prepare from scratch on your own, as it needs to be thoroughly cleaned out before cooking. Fortunately, most markets or butchers will sell reliably cleaned and flavor-neutral tripe. Even still, you’ll want to rinse the tripe in water several times and boil it in salted water for 10-15 minutes before cooking. Tripe is very versatile and cooks well grilled, stewed, or deep-fried. However, I like it best when it is slowly simmered and then boiled with a pepper blend and a few other spices. Consider starting out with the classic Tripe with onion and parsley recipe.

Posted by Shawn Moodie

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