Unless you’re regularly including organ meat in your diet already, you probably have a nagging voice in the back of your head telling you that you really should be eating more.
That voice is correct. Organ meats are economical and dollar for dollar, pound for pound, the most nutrient-packed food you can get. Okay, yes, organs aren’t always the most pleasant to eat. Allow me to apologize on behalf of moms everywhere if you were forced to eat overcooked liver and onions as a kid. However, organ dishes can range from totally innocuous to downright delicious when prepared correctly. If you’ve been reluctant to venture into the world of organ meat till now, it’s time to suck it up, buttercup. We’re doing it.
Why You Should Eat More Organ Meat
Besides the fact that they are incredibly nutritious, there are good reasons to be putting more organs on your plate. For one, they are usually cheaper than meat, often by a lot. (I’m going to use “meat” to refer to muscle meat throughout the post.) I used to be able to get a three-pound beef heart for five dollars from the rancher at my local farmer’s market. A similarly sized roast would have cost over thirty dollars if I picked the cheapest cut. Unfortunately, I talked up heart so much that I created demand among my friends in town. Now he charges $3 a pound—still a great price.
If you’re buying a whole cow, pig, goat, or sheep directly from a farmer, they may be willing to sell you the organs for a steal since most customers don’t want them. While you’re at it, ask for the head, though they’ll probably say no.
There’s also the principle of nose-to-tail eating. If you aren’t eating the organs, you are missing much of the edible portion of the animal. Sometimes organs go to make pet food, but other times they are simply discarded by meat processors. It’s wasteful. Ranchers and farmers have to raise more animals to feed the same number of people, making it hard to do sustainably.
There’s also something to be said for expanding your palate and trying new foods. Gutsy eaters (no pun intended) have a world of options open to them. And let’s be honest, when you eat organs in front of your kids and friends, they will either think you’re cool or totally disgusting. Either way, you win.
Is Organ Meat the Same as Offal?
Organs are offal, and often the two terms are used interchangeably. Offal can also refer more generally to any edible parts of the animal that are neither muscle meat nor internal organs, such as skin, feet, and cheeks. Still other times, offal refers to any part of the animal that gets discarded during standard animal processing. For the most part, though, when you hear people talking about eating offal, they mean organ meat.
Which Organs Can You Eat?
Historically, humans around the world created dishes out of any and every available part of the animal. Today, you are limited by what you can find at your local butcher shop or by bargaining with a local farmer.
Adventurous travelers know that every culture has traditional dishes featuring all manner of offal. Sausages and stews made with blood and organs are widespread. Scottish haggis—assorted organs and oats mashed together and stuffed in a sheep’s stomach—gets a bad rap, but you’d be surprised how many regional versions there are: Swedish lungmos (literally “lung mash”), Russian nyanya, or Romanian drob, to name a few. Look for Mexican menudo made with tripe (stomach lining), Indonesian limpa (spleen), or Rocky Mountain oysters (bull testicles) in the U.S. and Canada.
The availability of specific organs varies widely based on where you live. In the U.S., you’d be lucky to find spleen or brain in your local market, and it’s illegal to sell lungs for human consumption here. It’s easiest to find beef, pork, and chicken organs in my experience, but don’t limit yourself to those options. Bison, deer, sheep, goat, duck, and goose organs are also fantastic. If you’re a hunter, I hope you’re taking advantage of your access to a variety of organ meats!
For now, I’m going to focus on organs that are easiest to source, but if you’re lucky enough to find a farmer who will sell you a pancreas, by all means, grab it!
I always suggest that people who are squeamish about organ meat start with heart. It’s comparable to muscle meat in flavor and texture, and it’s easy to prepare.
Heart is rich in CoQ10, a vitamin-like compound that acts as an antioxidant and helps cells produce energy. It also provides B vitamins (especially B2 and B12), selenium, copper, zinc, iron, and phosphorous.
Heart takes a bit of prep, which is easiest to do when partially frozen. If you’re working with a thawed heart, throw it in the freezer for an hour before getting to work. Remove the valves if present, then trim off all the hard fat and stringy bits. You can now thinly slice and sear the meat, cube and skewer it on kabobs, or stuff and roast the heart whole.
Tongue is delicious and tender. Since it’s a muscle, its taste and texture are closer to meat than, say, liver. However, I fully admit that preparing it at home is not for the most squeamish among us. There’s no doubt you’re handling a tongue, and a huge one at that if it belonged to a cow. You might want to let someone else prepare it the first time you venture into eating tongue.
Tongue is particularly rich in vitamin B12 and zinc, while providing respectable amounts of the other vitamins and minerals associated with organ meats.
Tongue isn’t a dish you are going to whip up on a weeknight. It takes time. First, you need to simmer it—one or two hours for tongues from smaller animals like sheep, or three hours for cow tongue. Then, cool the tongue until you can handle it safely and peel off the outer skin (this is where the ick factor can set it). Now it’s ready to turn into something delicious. Many recipes call for the tongue to be sliced or cubed, then sauteed in hot oil until browned and crispy. You can also cook it on the grill.
Pro tip: Slow cookers and pressure cookers both make the initial cooking step a breeze.
A lot of people have a visceral reaction to the idea of liver. I get it. Liver has a strong taste and distinct texture that can be a hurdle, especially if you were forced to eat it as a child. Maybe start with chicken liver, which is milder than beef or pork.
If there is one food to rule them all when it comes to nutrient density, liver is king. It provides tons of pre-formed vitamin A—about a whole week’s worth—and a hefty dose of copper and B12, along with other B vitamins, phosphorus, selenium, zinc, and folate.
In fact, it provides so much vitamin A that it raises concerns about eating too much liver. It’s unclear how much of a danger this actually poses, but in the spirit of better safe than sorry, don’t eat liver every day. Once or twice a week suffices. Pregnant women should check with their doctors regarding safe upper limits.
If you purchase liver from a butcher, it will probably be ready to cook, though you may need to peel away the outer membrane. Some recipes call for soaking in water or milk to create a milder flavor, but I never bother. Properly cooked liver should be slightly pink on the inside and smooth, almost velvety. Do not overcook liver! It becomes dry and crumbly—not appealing.
Kidney is wonderfully nutritious, but frankly, I wouldn’t recommend starting here if you’re brand new to offal. By itself, the flavor can be quite strong and offputting. Legendary French chef Jacques Pepin euphemistically called it “assertive.” Using fresh beef or lamb kidneys, and cooking for a long time with other tasty ingredients, helps a lot.
Kidney is loaded with B2 and B12, plus other B vitamins, iron, zinc, copper, and phosphorus. If you’re popping Brazil nuts for selenium, consider adding kidney to the mix. A four-ounce serving of lamb kidney covers more than four times your daily requirement.
Intact kidneys look like lobes connected by a strip of hard white fat. Trim the meat away from the fat and remove the outer membrane. Before cooking, rinse the kidneys and optionally soak them in milk or cold salted water for an hour or so. Some sources recommend parboiling for one minute before cooking, but it’s not strictly necessary. Once prepped, kidneys can be quickly pan-fried, braised, or stewed.
The award for most incongruous food name goes to sweetbreads, which are actually the thymus gland of an animal. Some people call the pancreas sweetbreads, too. In any case, they are neither sweet nor bread. Sweetbreads aren’t as common as the other offerings included here, but they get a spot of honor for their mild flavor and unique nutritional profile compared to other organs. Plus, any time I talk about organ meats, foodies chime in and ask for sweetbreads to get more love, so here we are.
Like other organs, sweetbreads deliver provide B vitamins, phosphorus, and selenium. A four-ounce serving also contains more than 60 percent of your daily requirement of vitamin C.
Preparing sweetbreads is a multistep process. First, soak them in water with a squeeze of lemon juice for two to four hours or overnight, changing the water a few times. Drain and rinse the sweetbreads, then optionally blanch them by boiling for five minutes before plunging into cold water. Remove any connective tissue and the membrane. Now they are ready to be poached, grilled, roasted, or pan-fried.
How to Start
Wade in Slowly
As I said, heart is a good option because it tastes like meat. I’m not saying you should, but you could trick your kids or your partner into thinking they are eating steak kabobs made with cubes of marinated beef heart. Chicken liver pate is another good option for dipping your toe in the water. It’s not the prettiest dish, but I’ve had good luck introducing skeptical friends to the world of liver with a nice crudité spread and homemade pate.
If you’re not sure about preparing organ meat yourself, order it in a good restaurant or, in the case of tongue, your local street taco truck. Seriously, tacos de lengua (tongue) are fabulous.
No rule that says you have to eat a big plateful of kidneys to build your organ cred. Start by mixing small amounts of organ into other meat dishes. Any dish that uses ground beef can handily disguise organs. Grind heart, liver, or kidneys in a food processor and mix it into meatloaf, chili, or taco meat. For hamburgers, which stay raw in the middle, I prefer to saute the organs before grinding, then combine it with raw ground beef. Your butcher may be willing to grind and blend it to save you the trouble.
Steak and kidney pie is a traditional Scottish fare that is particularly sentimental to me because my Scottish grandmother always had a freezer full of handheld pies. The steak helps balance the kidney and keeps it from being overwhelming.
Often, even people who claim not to like organs enjoy sausages like liverwurst or braunschweiger made with organs. Perhaps that’s in part because they are well seasoned, which helps mask the strong flavor of liver in particular. Along the same lines, you can use spices like curry to camouflage the taste.
Just go for it. Mind over matter. If necessary, give yourself a pep talk. Tell yourself you’re going to enjoy it, eating organs is good for you, and that you are a grown-up who can do hard things.
Honestly, I enjoyed organs more after going Primal. My tastes shifted to appreciate more savory flavors in foods. I feel more connected to my body and can appreciate in the moment when I am eating something truly nourishing. Even if it’s not objectively delicious—if there were such a thing—it’s almost like I can taste that it’s good for me. I know that sounds a little woo-woo, but I’ve heard other people say the same.
Worst case scenario, you can always supplement with desiccated organ pills. Ancestral Supplements has an impressive line-up of organ supplements. Try food first, though. Maybe you’ll love it.