A divisive dish that calls for expert hands, sweetbreads are enjoying buoyed popularity abroad. They’re increasingly served at some of London’s leading restaurants — as well as popping up on menus closer to home, like Auckland’s Celeste and Botswana Butchery — and there’s a case to be made for their sensual appeal, argues Joel Hart. For the uninitiated, he explains where they come from and has experts explain how to cook them.
If you already eat kidneys, liver and tongue, you’re in Gizzi Erskine’s good books. “I rate you more if you eat offal,” the chef and food writer declared on Instagram recently. “I find it sexy and red blooded.”
The sexiest entrails yet, however — if this year’s hottest menus are anything to go by — are sweetbreads. The thymus or pancreas glands of cows, calves or lambs, sweetbreads are so-called because of their historic popularity. The old English word for flesh is bræd and at one time these morsels were so prized that they were given a name to reflect the demand. The written name was first recorded in a 16th-century English book called The Historie of Man; by the 1970s, they were beloved enough by Jane Grigson at least to warrant an entire chapter in her classic book on British cookery, Good Things.
Until relatively recently, however, it was rare to see them in restaurants, and you’d have been very lucky to find them at the butcher’s — yet all of a sudden they are now a regular fixture on the menus of Britain’s most innovative chefs.
Brett Graham, chef-owner of The Ledbury in Notting Hill, which has just been awarded its third Michelin star, offers two reasons for why veal sweetbreads have become more popular. Firstly, “they don’t have the strong flavour you would expect from liver and kidneys,” he explains. Secondly, “they are actually quite delicate so they lend themselves to lots of flavours, in the same way chicken might.”
Since the sweetbreads of adult cattle are less tender, and lamb’s sweetbreads are significantly smaller than cow’s, it is certainly the thymus of a calf — veal sweetbreads, known for their smooth, buttery texture and mild flavour — that you are more likely to encounter when eating out.
On Graham’s current menu, there is a dish of butter-seared roasted sweetbreads served alongside a pale ale emulsion, caramelised and pickled Roscoff onion, aged beef fat ponzu and three-cornered leek velouté — but he also recommends mushrooms, sweetcorn and sherry as happy bedfellows for this particular type of offal. There are veal sweetbreads on the menu at Planque in east London, accompanied by Jerusalem artichokes and liver parfait, as well as in Bath’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, Olive Tree, where the accoutrements are celeriac, yeast and sorrel.
Meanwhile, chef Roberta Hall-McCarron, who runs The Little Chartroom and Eleanore in Edinburgh, prefers to use lamb sweetbreads on her menus, pointing to their substantive flavour while still being “a bit lighter than other offal”. And, “they’re really crispy on the outside and soft and creamy in the middle,” she says. Her love of the ingredient is so strong she used them in her 2021 Great British Menu appearance. To make “Lambgoustines”, as she called her dish, she wrapped lamb sweetbreads around langoustines, coated the whole lot in breadcrumbs, crispy quinoa and corn nuts, then deep-fried them. She has also served them in a devilled sauce after poaching them in milk and as deep-fried nuggets to dip into pickled walnut ketchup.
There’s no limit to their application, it seems. Ayo Adeyemi, executive chef of acclaimed West African fine dining restaurant Akoko in Fitzrovia, London (which just received its first Michelin star), also loves the depth of flavour delivered by lamb sweetbreads.
Although sweetbreads are not commonly used in West African cuisine, the use of hearts, gizzards, tripe, feet, kidney and livers is significant in Nigeria’s Yoruba culture: in a cooking style known as “orisirisi” (translating to “assorted”), various kinds of offal are applied “to add combined flavours, textures and heighten the quality of the overall dishes,” Adeyemi says. To fulfil this role at Akoko, they star on the current tasting menu in a dish of lamb loin, lamb sweetbread and jollof rice. “There is a lot of work [required] to gain the most out of the sweetbreads, which includes brining in a 10 per cent herb-infused solution, poaching and cleaning, before pan frying and turning [them] into a mousse to spread on top of the lamb cannon,” Adeyemi explains.
Tomos Parry, founder and co-owner of Mountain, one of last year’s most widely-lauded London restaurant openings, favours the low and slow approach for his sweetbreads: “They can be slow cooked so they taste like deliciously cooked meat,” he says. “Also, they’re very rich so you don’t need much, but they have a quite decadent taste. I love the idea of a decadent thing not being the prime cut.”
Parry doesn’t stop at tender lamb offal; he also looks to older animals, using beef sweetbreads in a dish with slow-cooked leeks, lemon and parsley “because they’re richer in flavour”. His menu at Mountain takes inspiration from mountain cooking and “this style is the way we had them one time in Catalonia,” Parry explains: beef sweetbreads are cooked on top of a fire at a low heat for 40 minutes, while being continually basted with a reduction, until a pleasing black crust forms on their exterior. They’re then rested and carved to order. “The slow cooking really nurtures it,” says Parry. “Even though it’s an offal piece, you treat it like a grade-A piece of meat.”
Sweetbreads have evidently come a long way since the days when they were “served as greyish-white lumps in a floury sauce by hospital cooks,” something Grigson believed stood in the way of her attempt to get cooks to “regard them as luxury”. One other major change has been their availability at British butchers. Grigson wrote of them “coming deep-frozen from New Zealand at only 25p or 30p a pound,” but one can now buy sweetbreads from premium butchers across the UK, particularly those focused on sustainability and whole animal butchery, such as Swaledale Farms, Alternative Meats, Wild Meat Company and HG Walter.
Georgie Greene, the head of marketing at HG Walter, suggests that their increasing popularity among chefs has “made them a fantastic springboard for eating offal and opting into a nose-to-tail diet,” leading to more customers purchasing them for home cooking. “Lamb sweetbread sales have increased yearly since 2020, with a 184 per cent spike last year,” she says, “indicating a real surge in popularity.” Veal sweetbread sales have remained steady, but this is due to their increase in price over the last few years, which Green says is “the result of a higher demand for the sweeter, creamier and more tender veal offal cuts.”
Their popularity among consumers may also have something to do with the wide variety of beneficial nutrients. They’re rich in vitamins K, A and E, as well as other trace minerals, and filled with mono- and polyunsaturated fats that are good for heart health and the regulation of cholesterol. Given their rich taste, moreover, the amount of fat in them is relatively low.
Nonetheless, Green admits, “while the health benefits of sweetbreads are undeniable, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t enjoy them best basted in countless knobs of butter.” The most butteriest cut of meat drowning in butter? With many chefs and home cooks in agreement, it’s no wonder they’ve emerged again as Britain’s favourite offal.
Tips for cooking sweetbreads at home
1. Prepare to trim, salt and steam
HG Walter recommends soaking sweetbreads in milk for two hours, before rinsing them under cold water, bringing them to a boil in a pan with fresh milk, garlic, rosemary and salt, removing them from the heat and letting them sit in the milk for 5-10 minutes. After removing them from the milk, they should be chilled, allowing the fat and sinew to solidify, making it easier to peel off.
2. Embrace contrasting textures
Pan-searing is an easy way to make the most of their propensity for a crisp-soft contrast at home. HG Walter recommends dusting them in flour, salt and ground fennel, before pan-frying in oil, to get a bit of colour, and — for the final minute — adding a few knobs of butter, a splash of sherry vinegar and a bit of beef stock to give them a shiny glaze. Brett Graham recommends steaming them with lemon thyme butter, as they currently are at The Ledbury, before finishing them in a pan. Remember that lamb sweetbreads are smaller and need less cooking time than veal or beef.
3. Utilise their versatility
Chefs agree that sweetbreads are incredibly versatile due to their mild flavour and rich texture. Roberta Hall-McCarron recommends trying them with hazelnut, asparagus or black garlic, while Ayo Adeyemi suggests combining them with lots of aromatic herbs like thyme, rosemary and coriander. Brett Graham enjoys them with honey and brown butter, while Tomos Parry likes to think of them as a flavour enhancer – add them to a braise or use them to enrich a sauce.
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