There are several different ways to prepare sweetbreads including boiling, frying, or grilling. It is important to properly prepare them for cooking to make them palatable. They must be soaked, blanched, and then pressed before being seasoned and cooked. These meats are usually served with a white or brown sauce and can be served as both appetizers and main dishes.
Sweetbreads are made using either the thymus gland or pancreas of veal or lamb. Pigs are also used in some countries, although their sweetbreads tend to be tougher, and with a very strong flavor. Lamb is said to produce a larger, rounder organ, while those from veal are longer and thinner. Young animals have more desirable pale pink offal, while those of older animals are dark red. Their organs are also tougher and less flavorful.
The organs must be soaked for up to 24 hours in a water with wine or vinegar added. This helps to soften the membrane, making it easier to remove, and also helps to drain the blood. It also gives them a milder, more pleasant taste than those that have not been soaked, and tenderizes the meat.
After soaking, the sweetbreads are blanched. This is done by placing them in a pan of cold water which is brought to a slow boil. They are boiled for just a minute or two, which removes any remaining impurities. It also firms them up, making them easier to cut into pieces. The sweetbreads should be removed from the water after blanching and placed into a cold water bath.
The sweetbreads should also be pressed. To do this, place a heavy pot or pan filled with water on top of them. They should be refrigerated this way for a few hours. Pressing helps to further firm the meat before cooking.
Sweetbreads are often served with a veloute sauce, which is a white sauce with a roux base. Brown sauces such as truffle and Madeira also complement them well. Considered haute cuisine, they are served as a delicacy in many parts of the world and valued for their versatility and delicate taste.
Organ meats such as sweetbreads became popular in the U.S. during the Depression. Food was scarce and nothing was ever wasted, including all types of offal, which were formerly considered unpleasant and often just thrown away. Today, adventurous eaters can find them in many larger supermarkets or specialty shops. Freshness should be ensured before purchasing, however, as all organ meats are extremely perishable. They should be cooked as soon as possible because they will keep in the refrigerator for no more than a day or two.