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Offal is a collective term for the waste materials which remain after the carcass of an animal has been butchered and dressed. The term “waste materials” is actually a bit misleading, as many cultures have a variety of uses for offal, and in some regions certain parts of offal are treated as a delicacy. You may also hear offal called “organ meat” or “mixed organ meat.” With a growing interest in traditional butchery in the early 21st century, offal became much more readily available at restaurants and butcher shops, much to the delight of adventurous eaters.
The origins of this word are a bit unclear. Folk etymologists have suggested that it is a corruption of “off fall,” referring to the fact that as a carcass is butchered and dressed, the offal falls away, onto the floor of the butcherhouse. In modern times, of course, offal is collected in clean buckets and other containers, rather than being plucked up off the floor. This quaint explanation may or may not be correct; in any case, the word began to appear in English around the Middle Ages.
Some well known examples of offal include: brain, liver, kidneys, spleen, pancreas, stomach, thymus, tripe, tongue, and intestines. Depending on where you live, you may be familiar with some or all of these body parts in the culinary context. In many parts of the world, for example, the intestines are scraped and used as a casing for sausage, and brain is a popular ingredient in many cultures. The liver is also a popular piece of offal, appearing in pate and a wide assortment of other dishes around the world.
The flavor and texture of offal is quite distinctive, and also quite varied. The liver, for example, is extremely rich, dense, and creamy, which is why it is typically used in small amounts or blended with other ingredients. Brain, on the other hand, has a lighter, more crumbly texture which can sometimes be almost flaky. Kidneys, with their strong flavor, are especially popular in British cuisine, while “lights,” or lungs, are used in an assortment of dishes as well.
Offal is not to everyone's taste, especially in the case of people who have grown up in cultures where offal is not widely consumed. Such people sometimes point out that “offal” and “awful” are homophones, words which sound the same, although they have very different meanings. In any case, offal needs to be handled with care to be eaten safely. Intestines, for example, can contain dangerous bacteria, and brains may contain prions, the unique proteins which cause spongiform diseases like mad cow and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.