Why are sweetbreads a delicacy and what are they? Are they really testicles?
It sounds like it could be a sugared pastry, but the most common misconception regarding sweetbreads is that it is testicles. In reality, sweetbreads are actually a type of offal made from the internal organs from either lambs or calves. While people do of course eat animal testicles, testicles are most often sold as “fries” or “stones”, while sweetbreads are rather made from glands like the thymus and the pancreas.
But why is this offal called sweetbreads? Well, because while it doesn’t quite taste sweet, it does taste sweeter than regular meat, and because the old English word for flesh is “braed”. Back in the 19th century, it had seemed as if almost every dish was accompanied with sweetbread garnishes. In those days they were cheap, plentiful and of course, as delicious as they still are today.
Nowadays it has become a cut that is quite difficult to get your hands on, however. Most of it is snapped up by luxury restaurants, and the few that does make it to the local butcher are snaffled out quite quickly by those in the know.
Sweetbreads are most often served either grilled, seared or fried and accompanied by dry-cured streaky bacon. It is when served with bacon or sweet vegetables such as beans or peas that sweetbreads taste best. The texture of sweetbreads is extremely smooth, tender and moist, and the flavour is mild and creamy. The outside crisps up easily, and they play nicely with both rich and more acidic sauces.
In the past, before the rise of mass supermarkets in the 20th century, people would generally slaughter their own cattle or sheep for meat. In order to make sure nothing goes to waste, the glands were also commonly consumed. However, unlike in times past, today sweetbreads aren’t widely available anymore. For this reason, it has come to be considered a delicacy — something that is generally consumed by a select few who go out of their way to enjoy them as part of haute cuisine.