It’s Time for Thymus with Thyme

Sweetbreads are not sweet, and they are not bread, either. The French term translates to “veal rice,” but they do not bear even the vaguest resemblance to rice. The Italians call them “Animelle.” Sweetbreads are not even sweetbreads a lot of the time. The thymus gland exists only in young calves, and disappears as they mature.

Pancreas is frequently sold and served as sweetbreads, and it’s pretty hard to tell the difference. And, cringeworthy though it may be, prostate gland is also marketed as sweetbreads. Keep in mind, it is harvested from neutered cattle, so it’s at least reminiscent of actual sweetbreads.

I imagine prostate gland from a bull, a MATURE bull, would be pretty strong. Sweetbreads are glandular. Even the mildest thymus version does emit a vague “hormonal” aroma, like liver and kidneys, but not quite that strong. Maybe somebody decided it just wouldn’t be marketable to describe them accurately. Liver is liver, and kidneys are kidneys, and people don’t let the name stop them from eating them, even if that market is limited. The traditional preparations of sweetbreads typically take steps to remove the natural characteristics of the cut, by soaking and rinsing repeatedly.

The Wisdom of the Ancients.

The method I was taught to cook sweetbreads is the same as I see in old cook books that discuss it. Larousse Gastronomique is this well known, biblical encyclopedia of French cooking, highly regarded in the pre-digital age. It’s one of those cook books that has numerous recipes for particular items, like sweetbreads, but they’re not necessarily listed together in sequence. It’s a great book to curl up with and just turn to a random page and read, but more difficult to actually use as a reference. Even so, all the recipes say to cold soak the sweetbreads to remove all those mysterious “impurities,” and then put the sweetbreads in a pot with COLD water. Bring it to a boil, and cook until desired tenderness is achieved.

Duration to tenderness varies according to which version of sweetbreads you are cooking, and the actual thymus gets tender pretty quick. Some variants have to boil for 2 or 3 hours to achieve the right texture.  As the pot simmers, the water gets cloudier and cloudier, as we will see. By the time they’re done, you can’t really see the sweetbreads unless they are floating on the top. But this fluid is not stock. Honestly, I don’t know what’s in there, but the flavor is not very appealing. Not horrible, but not inviting either. It gets discarded, and that’s that.

It’s Not as Weird as Haggis.

Sweetbreads will never be a big seller. My understanding is that “in the old days,” butchers just gave them away because there wasn’t enough to amount to anything of value. By modern standards, that makes sweetbreads all that much more precious. $35/lb. is a lot to pay for ANYTHING, much less a gland. On the other hand, a pound will make about four meals, so it’s great for people who like Limburger cheese and other weird stuff. Why?

Because you won’t have to worry that somebody will steal your sweetbreads out of the fridge in the lunchroom at work. To most people, they don’t even look like food. Don’t forget that they are in your fridge, either. They have a short shelf life, and take on a distinctly unpleasant odor once autolysis rears its ugly head.


  • Sweetbreads, about 1 lb.
  • Fresh Thyme, as much as you can stand to pick.
  • S+P
  • Flour, to dredge.
  • Egg white, one.
  • Navel Orange, one.
  • Chopped parsley, who measures?
  • EVOO, to drizzle over the orange.
  • Root Beer, 3 oz./90ml
  • Savory Cranberry Paste, see recipe, 2 oz./60ml.
  • Demi-glace. 2 oz./60ml.
  • Butter, 2 oz./60g.

It’s Time for Thymus with Thyme

  • Remove sweetbreads from packaging and soak in cold water for thirty minutes.

  • Drain well.

  • Put sweetbreads in Ziploc gallon bag with .5 gallons COLD water.

  • Close the bag, or leave it open, held upright.

  • At first, the sweetbreads will appear pink.

  • As the water gets to 165F, they will start to tighten and lose the pink tinge.

  • By the time they get to 183F, there are becoming gray, and the water becomes cloudy.

  • After a few minutes @183F, they will be pale gray, and the water will very cloudy.

  • Eventually, the water will get so cloudy that you really can’t see the sweetbreads.
  • This broth will have a bland, mild, hormonal sort of smell, not suitable for use as stock.

  • Thoroughly shock the sweetbreads down to 70F using cold or ice water.

  • Gently dry them off, and remove any large pieces of membraneous tissue.

  • At this time, I put them in a vacuum bag and removed the excess air (optional).

  • Put the vacuumed bag into a glass pie pan or other suitable flat container.

  • Add a weight to the top.
  • This will flatten the sweet breads somewhat, and remove whatever moisture remains.
  • Once they are cold, you will see they become quite firm again.
  • Drain and discard excess water.

And Then…

  • Always chop parsley first.
  • Well, not always, but usually.
  • Parsley likes a dry board.

  • Chop Thyme
  • I know, chopping herbs is what they make you do in Culinary Prison.

  • Split the sweetbreads so they are cutlet thickness.
  • Dredge in flour.
  • Coat or paint with egg white.
  • Sprinkle or otherwise attach the thyme to the surface of the sweetbreads.

  • So that you get this.

  • I made a little video to demo this step, click  on this LINK.

  • Peel and slice the orange, and fan it out.

  • Season generously with S+P, a little dried green stuff of your choosing.
  • Drizzle with EVOO.

  • Arrange the sweetbreads on top.
  • Click the LINK to see me and Chloe making the sauce.

  • Pour some of the sauce over the sweetbreads, save the rest.

  • If you’re left handed, you can do it like this.