Organ Meat

Sweetbreads for the Sweet

A once and future delicacy makes a comeback.

By Katharine Shilcutt February 11, 2014

Sweetbreads at Coltivare.

"Sweetbread: the soft, milky thymus glands of the young calf and lamb, the former being the more highly esteemed and considered one of the greatest of all meat delicacies..."

This is how Artemas Ward described sweetbreads in The Grocer's Encyclopedia, published in 1911, though the tender meat had been prized for centuries prior. An Italian cookbook from the 1500s calls for sweetbreads to be cooked with saffron and ginger. An English cookbook from the 1600s describes a pie containing sweetbreads, artichokes, bone marrow, and nutmeg. A French cookbook from the 1800s suggests cooking the sweetbreads with bacon fat and butter, but notes: "There is no necessity to moisten a sweetbread, as they have so much original moisture, that they will never be too dry."

Therein lies the allure of the sweetbread, a piece of meat so juicy it tastes less like flesh and more like buttery marrow. Because the cut—typically the pancreas or thymus gland of a calf, though lamb is still common—comes from such a young animal (the older the beast, the stronger the taste), sweetbreads' extremely subtle flavor also makes them adaptable to nearly any dish. And while sweetbreads fell slightly out of favor in the last few decades, they've come roaring back onto restaurant menus once again much in the same way as similarly maligned favorites that are enjoying a resurgence of popularity: brussels sprouts, oxtails, kale, cauliflower.

For a while, one of the few reliable places in Houston to find good sweetbreads was at Taqueria Tacambaro—a food truck parked behind the Canino produce market, where Tacambaro owner Maria Rojas has sold mollejas tacos for nearly 20 years. These days, however, it seems no fine dining repertoire is complete without a ris de veau dish.

Image: T. Tseng

You'll find General Tso's-style sweetbreads at Goro & Gun, where chef J.D. Woodward incorporates the restaurant's funky modern Asian flare into a sweet and spicy dish with a maddeningly addictive double layer of texture: a thick, crunchy batter gives way to nearly creamy sweetbreads underneath. At the new Osteria Mazzantinichef Paul Lewis tucks sweetbreads and kale into pockets of housemade ravioli topped with a velvety shock of brown butter, lemon, and balsamic vinegar. You'll find them at adventurous spots such as Roost and Triniti and at mainstays such as Cafe Rabelais and Brasserie Max & Julie.

You'll find them, too, at the brand-new Coltivare, which opened in late January. There, chef Ryan Pera serves his sweetbreads in a crispy, Panko-like batter that's topped with fresh chervil from the restaurant's attached garden and given an emphatic underscore with peppery horseradish and briny anchovies that cut straight through the creamy meat.

Although the organ meat can often prove a tough sell to people, sweetbreads are—much like beef hearts—nothing to be afraid of. There's a reason all of our ancestors prized these parts, after all: they're much more tender and flavorful than boring bits of flesh like chicken breast or lean ground beef. And with these new preparations hitting menus across Houston, there's never been a better time to acquaint yourself with the sweetest meat of them all. 


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