What Are Sweetbreads?

Posted on 17 May 2012 16:10

A sweetbread is not a sugared pastry, which is what you'd be justified in thinking. Usually, when people tell you what sweetbreads are, they get it wrong, or only half right.

Are Sweetbreads Testicles?

The wrong answer: sweetbreads are testicles. Nope. People do eat testicles, which you will often hear referred to as Rocky Mountain Oysters, which are bull calf testicles, or sometimes sheep or pig. But sweetbreads are not testicles.

Are They Calve's Brains?

Another popular belief is that sweetbreads are the brains of calves. This too, is incorrect.

The half-right answer that you will often read is that sweetbreads are the animal's internal organs.

What Are Sweetbreads Really?

Yes, they are internal organs, but not just any old internal organs, like the stomach, heart, intestines, etc. They are glands, the thymus and/or the pancreas. So, yes, the term 'sweetbreads' is just a bit deceptive, since they are neither sweet nor bread-like. But would you eat a thymus?

The thymus and pancreas glands are soft, almost white organs. They are consumed by people in most of the world. These glands are harvested from young calves, which are available all year.

Sometimes sweetbreads from calves are called veal sweetbreads or sweetbread of veal but veal is the meat from a calf and not a type of animal, and all sweetbreads come from young animals unless you consider the pancreas a true sweetbread, which I'll get to. The point is the term veal sweetbreads is a bit redundant.

Sweetbreads are also harvested from lambs, which are only available in the spring. Opinions differ on which is better between the thymus and the pancreas, and there is debate as to whether the pancreas should be used at all.

lamb sweetbreads with gnocchi

Lamb Sweetbreads with Gnocchi
image by stu_spivack

lamb sweetbreads with gnocchi

Lamb Sweetbreads with Gnocchi
image by stu_spivack

Only Young Animals Have a Thymus

The thymus, as mentioned, is only available from young animals. This gland develops prenatally and its function is unknown. It starts to disappear once the animal is taken off a liquid milk diet.

Also, the way the young animal is fed affects the quality of the product. All this makes them special, limited in supply, and expensive.

Heart Sweetbread Versus Throat Sweetbread

The thymus gland is known as the 'throat sweetbread' or 'heart sweetbread' depending on the part of the thymus being considered. The thymus gland has two parts. 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.

Although it is possible to find them sold as two separate products, the heart and throat sweetbreads (the plural is usually used because of this) come as two attached parts, connected by a long soft tube. In French, the throat part is called la gorge, meaning "throat" and the heart is called la noix, meaning "nut" or "kernel." If you have the guts to go out and buy some to prepare, and you can get just the heart, by all means go for it. Both will have pretty much the same flavor but the heart should be much easier to prepare.

Thymus sweetbread goes bad very quickly. They really should be prepared the same day they are brought home from the market.

Calf Sweetbread

Calf Sweetbread
image by Charles Haynes

Calf Sweetbread

Calf Sweetbread
image by Charles Haynes

The Stomach Sweetbread

Today, the pancreas, or 'stomach sweetbread' is not used as often as the thymus, and which sweetbreads are used depends on the region. Although some opinions differ, the pancreas is not well considered in the culinary world and when professional chefs say 'sweetbreads' they usually only mean the thymus.

Some claim that the original term got expanded to include the pancreas, since, even though it is an inferior product, it is a bit easier to come by.

The pancreas does not disappear as the animal grows older, and since it has a texture and look that is reminiscent of the thymus, it is thought that this may explain it being used as a more widely available substitute. This claim does not appear to be historically accurate and the pancreas was indeed traditionally referred to as a sweetbread, and used often.

The pancreas has a coarser texture and its flavor is not as good, but it is cheaper. The French, reportedly, find the idea of eating pancreas disgusting, and as you know, France is not usually squeamish about organs and glands.4

Confusion over the Stomach and Heart Sweetbreads

Be warned that you may encounter some confusion over the relative desirability of the pancreas and thymus. As I mentioned, it is the heart sweetbread, with its nice round compact shape, that is the most desired form. This is part of the thymus gland. However, some sources mistake the heart thymus for the pancreas.

When the stomach sweetbread, or pancreas, is confused with the heart sweetbread, this makes people think that the pancreas is actually better! The pancreas has also been referred to as the heart sweetbread at times, to add to the confusion. It was also called the belly sweetbread or gut sweetbread.

Other glands, including testicles, have been lumped in as well, throughout history, so the confusion and disagreement over just what part the sweetbreads are is nothing new. There is some written evidence that discerning cooks always considered the thymus, traditionally called only the throat sweetbread to be the true sweetbread, with the pancreas, and other glands, being a cheaper alternative that butchers would supply because they were more widely available. Another gland, the parotid, was sometimes called the cheek or ear sweetbread,

Nowadays, we consider stomach sweetbread and heart sweetbread to be two different things. If you can, get the heart sweetbread, or the part of the thymus that comes from the chest region. Your second choice should be the throat sweetbread. Pancreas is third-rate. The pancreas gland is sometimes called the False Sweetbread. According to Julia Child:

"A whole sweetbread, which is the thymus gland of a calf and usually weighs around 1 pound, consists of 2 lobes connected by a soft, white tube, the cornet. The smoother, rounder, and more solid of the two lobes is the kernel, heart, or noix, and the choicest piece. The second lobe, called the throat sweetbread or gorge, is more uneven in shape…"4

Sweetbreads from younger animal are best because their texture is soft and delicate yet firm. The best sweetbreads come from lambs or calves, as mentioned. Sometimes pork is substituted. These will be dark and coarse looking, not white and soft looking like the others. Do not accept pork sweetbreads as a substitute, if you'd like to try some. You will not be pleased.

Where Do Sweetbreads Get Their Name?

The name goes back to the sixteenth century, at least. The "sweet" part may refer to it being a delicacy, rather than to an actual sweet taste. Still, the thymus is a sweeter tasting and more rich than meat, and the origin of the name is thought to be of Old English origin. Sweet was written "swete" or "sweete" and meant "pleasing to the mind or senses, pleasant, or agreeable." Bread may have come from the Old English brǣd, meaning "flesh" or from // braede, meaning "roasted meat." The name may also bear a relationship to the German //schweder, or sweeser or the Dutch zweezerik or zweeserkens. These words have no connection with sweet, and so the modern name may have been a corruption of these earlier forms. 5,4

It comes from the Old English word swete, which The "bread" part is not a reference to bread at all, but comes from the Old English broed, meaning "flesh."

Preparing Sweetbreads

It is not likely that the casual home cook will want to tackle sweetbread cooking. Learning how to make sweetbreads is something that takes a lot of practice and labor. The big problem with sweetbreads is even if you pick out the choicest heart sweetbreads, they will be different every time. Doesn't matter how expensive they are or how good your supplier is, each time, the product is a bit different and you can never be sure just what your preparation method is going to produce. Working with them is intimidating and a bit disgusting, so the effort that goes into figuring out how to work with them, and getting past the off-putting idea of working with offal, plus the decidedly random results you may get will likely cause you to be parted with your money AND any desire to ever want to try them again. But when they are prepared by a true pro, you may find them to be quite delectable. So, now that you have an idea of what they are, you can ask the right questions should you encounter them on the menu of a (very nice) restaurant, and maybe you will feel adventurous and give them a try. When they are done right, they are tender and creamy, reminiscent of brains but I can never get past the idea of eating an animal's brains.

Sweetbreads, traditionally, are either braised or sauteéd. Classic recipes call for a preliminary blanching and then topping them with a weight to make them more compact, better looking, and easier to slice.

Are Sweetbreads Like Chitlins (chitterlings)?

Both sweetbreads and chitlins are offal. The term offal simply refers to the inner organs and entrails of an animal, besides the muscle and bone. Chitterling are, however, pig intestines.

1. Lin, Eddie. Extreme Cuisine: Exotic Tastes from around the World. Footscray, Vic.: Lonely Planet, 2009.
2. Peterson, James. Cooking. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed, 2007. 204.
3. Farmer, Fannie Merritt. The Boston Cooking-school Cook Book, by Fannie Merritt Farmer. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1913
4. McLagan, Jennifer. Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2011. 90-92.
5. Scott, Edurne. "The Origin of the Word Sweet." Suite101.com. Web. 17 May 2012. <http://edurne-scott.suite101.com/the-origin-of-the-word-sweet-a85529>.
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