Offal, the edible entrails and internal organs of animals, is widely regarded in American society as the Fear Factor cuts of meat. For the past few years though, chefs have been integrating offal into their menus, exposing squeamish Americans to what was historically a poor man’s meal. Cooking it at home is the next step; cuts of offal are sold at ethnic markets, and surprisingly, a large selection is carried at Wal-Mart. Butchers will also be able to get it, though it typically has to be ordered, and is often shipped frozen.
1. Liver. The gateway meal to offal, liver is widely enjoyed chopped, in pâté, and simply fried with onions. Lamb, chicken, duck, pig, and cows or calves are all fair game for liver-lovers, though cows’ livers are thought to have too pungent a flavor for many palates. Liver is often used as a base to build off of in regional dishes like haggis or faggots.
2. Sweetbreads. These come from either the pancreas or the thymus of a young pig, lamb, or calf. They are soft in texture and mellow in flavor. Sweetbreads are common on restaurant menus; they are often lightly battered and pan- or deep-fried. Don’t be fooled by the name, as they are neither naturally sweet nor bready (though sometimes breaded).
3. Head Cheese. Head cheese has nothing to do with cheese and a lot to do with heads. It’s a terrine made by slowly cooking a pig’s head in broth until all the meat, gelatin, and fat can be pulled from the bones. It’s often served cold. Chef Fergus Henderson explains in The Whole Beast that he likes to throw in a few trotters (pigs’ feet) for good measure. He pairs it with his Sorrel, Chicory, and Crispy Ear Salad.
4. Chitterlings (Chitlins). The uncontested American patriot of offal, chitlins are made from the small intestines of pigs. A staple in Southern culture, especially during the holidays, they’re typically deep-fried or thrown into a stew. There are multiple festivals dedicated to chitlins, notably the Chitlin’ Strut in South Carolina, which has been around since 1966. People get sick each year from improperly cleaned chitlins, so many Southern states give guidelines—like Georgia, which offers an unappetizing but informative poster.
5. Oxtail. Richard Shepard of J.W. Treuth & Sons in Maryland says that oxtails (historically from oxen but now usually from cows) are spiking in popularity. A good butcher, says Shepard, will make the slice between the vertebrae at the end of the spinal column, which will provide a cut with flavorful cartilage as well as some meat, most of which sits at the base of the tail. A common preparation is a long, slow braise, though Shepard likes Caribbean-style oxtail stew.
6. Kidneys. Chef Laurent Quenioux of Bistro K in Pasadena, California, enjoys cooking and eating veal or goat kidneys because of their strong, distinct flavor and firm texture. When prepared correctly, he says, they should be “crunchy in the mouth.” Quenioux says that in France kidneys come surrounded by fat, and are much better to cook with, but the USDA requires that the fat be separated from the kidneys. According to Quenioux, people sometimes describe a faint taste of ammonia, which should be a marker that these cuts aren’t for everyone.
7. Tripe. Spongy-textured tripe usually comes from the first three stomachs of the cow: the rumen (referred to as smooth tripe), the reticulum (honeycomb tripe), and the omasum (book or leaf tripe). The USDA bleaches all tripe to clean it of impurities, which changes it from gray to white, but Brian Cunningham of Niman Ranch claims this is an unnecessary step and potentially damaging to tripe’s rich flavor.
8. Blood. If you’ve ever pricked your finger and sucked, you pretty much have a sense of the flavor of blood. But according to CHOW Associate Food Editor Regan Burns, magic happens when blood (typically it’s pig’s blood) is cooked and combined with meats and fats to become sausage. There’s a blood sausage variant in almost every culture. Burns is a proponent of the Catalan variant, the butifarra negra.
9. Brains. The Dutch-German communities that settled in the Ohio River Valley brought with them many things, including their recipe for brain. The Hilltop Inn in Evansville, Indiana, has served it up since the restaurant was built in the 1840s. Co-owner Lanette Snyder made a cow brain sandwich until two years ago, when the USDA outlawed brains from cows over 30 months old for fear of mad cow disease. She says it took her six months to test and re-create an acceptable recipe for the still-legal pork brains. “Pig brains are more delicate and fall apart much easier than cow brains, which have a chunkier texture,” she states. “People were hesitant at first to the change, but now say that they like the creaminess of the pig and its texture better.”
10. Pizzle. Not usually found on Michelin-rated wine lists, pizzle wine is a traditional Chinese remedy for diminished virility. It’s made from any combination of powdered dog, horse, deer, seal, sheep, or ox penis. Powdered seal penis is an expensive commodity, so be sure you’re getting the real thing: A 1998 study reported that powdered pizzle sold in Toronto as seal penis included dog DNA. Pizzle isn’t always powdered—ox penis is said to be excellent poached in vinegar and sautéed.