One of the hottest trends in the gourmet food scene right now is offal. The term offal is a British name for the non- muscle parts of a butchered animal, such as the entrails and internal organs. Offal is becoming more popular, thanks to growing interest in Food Network TV shows, increased culinary travel, and the proliferation of innovative edgy neighborhood restaurants.
Although these “variety meats” (also called organ meats in the U.S.) have been used for centuries in ethnic cuisines, they are relatively new to most 21st century Americans. We’re familiar, however, with such things as foie gras, pâté, chitterlings, and those infamous Rocky Mountain oysters, which are all technically offal.
What’s in it?
From a nutritional standpoint, there’s good news and bad news about offal meats. The good news is that they are an intensely flavorful and economical source of protein. The bad news is, with a few exceptions, they are rich in saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories.
Let’s get specific
Next time you pick up a menu at a dining hot spot, you might see one of the following offal featured:
Blood is used to make blood sausages and blood puddings. It’s a great source of iron, although it can be high in fat and cholesterol. A 3-ounce serving of blood sausage contains about 380 calories and 15 grams of protein, and is about 80 percent fat.
Hocks are the joints between an animal's leg bone and foot. They have much skin, tendons, and ligaments, and so must be stewed or braised for long periods. Hocks, used in Southern U.S. and Caribbean cuisines to flavor soups and greens, are high in protein and fat. A 3-ounce serving of ham hocks contains about 230 calories, 12 grams of protein, and 18 grams of fat.
Intestines, popularized lately by the “caveman diet” (or the paleo/Paleolithic diet), are called chitterlings by Southern cooks. These meats must be thoroughly cleaned and cooked because of food safety issues.
Tripe is the lining of an animal’s stomach. It’s a good source of protein but high in total fat and saturated fat.
Heart, commonly used in Peruvian barbecue and Scottish haggis, is a good source of protein but is extremely high in cholesterol.
Brain is used in Latin and European cultures but consumption is restricted in the U.S. due to concerns about Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or "mad cow disease." A 3-ounce serving of beef brain is about 130 calories and 9 grams of protein, and is only 14 percent fat.
Liver, when from younger animals, tends to be less tough and has a milder flavor. It is high in protein, iron, and vitamin A.
Sweetbreads consist of the pancreas and thymus of an animal, and are most tender and flavorful when from veal and young lamb. Sweetbreads are a good source of iron and protein but are also high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
Tongue is best prepared using slow, moist cooking methods. A good source of iron and protein, but high in saturated fat.
Some types of offal are rich in purines, substances that can exacerbate a gout attack in at-risk people. And, as when planning all meals, be sure to have a moderate or even modest portion of these meaty choices. I often advise my patients to use the palm of the hand as an offal portion guide.
Kitchen advice—how do you cook offal?
Because many “variety meats” are tougher than cuts of muscle meat, they might require slow cooking, tenderizing, mechanical chopping, or grinding. Some examples of creative cookery methods for offal include:
braising in wine or vinegar
stewing with a blend of onion, celery, and carrots (the French call this combination a mirepoix)
simmering with tomato
marinating with citrus, oil, and vinegar
pickling with vinegar and chili and spices
curing with salt
preserving in a lemon or vinegar sauce
To avoid potentially dangerous bacterial contamination, never eat raw or undercooked offal.