The idea of using the entire animal for cooking certainly isn’t new. After all, to our ancestors, the efficient use of every part of their game was of life-and-death importance.
But as the local butcher gave way to grocery stores on every corner — and convenient, pre-packaged meats in every cart — many cuts and core parts of the animal started to go unused, eventually losing favor among the meat-eating public.
However, as foodies everywhere have become increasingly interested in locally sourced ingredients, sustainability, and healthier foods, this concept of “nose-to-tail” cooking is steadily becoming a large part of the restaurant experience. And it’s bringing with it various cuts and cooking methods that are entirely new — and entirely delicious.
Pronounced “awful” (but far from it), offal at one time referred primarily to the entrails of a butchered animal. Today, offal is used as a catch-all term for most non-skeletal parts of the animal that can be consumed, including the head, internal organs such as the heart or liver, and much more.
Often called “variety” and “organ” meats in the U.S., very few of these cuts have managed to stay popular as we continue to distance ourselves from the way our animals are processed. There have been some notable exceptions, though. Liver, for example, is still widely served both in its whole form and ground into smooth pate. Chitterlings, most often made from the small intestines of a pig, continue to be a staple of Southern cooking. And even tongue is still an occasional guest on many menus, such as at Ben’s Best Delicatessen in Rego Park, N.Y.
Despite most other organs being relatively under-utilized in American cooking, offal is put on delicious display by many other cultures. Traditional Mexican cuisine — like the dishes offered by Jaliso Café in Bonita, Calif. — features menudo, a broth-based soup made with tripe (aka, beef stomach). And in China, you may find yourself snacking on Zha Fei Chang, deep fried slices of pork intestines, as you tour a local market.
Regardless of whether you choose to dine on the head or the heart, offal is known for having high concentrations of necessary vitamins, nutrients, and proteins — even surpassing traditionally eaten meat in potential nutritional value.
If you’re concerned that eating a gland or lung is just too out there, start your offal journey with a preparation familiar enough to please a Western palate. Grilled blood sausage such as that served at Buenos Aires restaurant in New York — called morcillas in Spanish cuisine — typically has a pleasant, mild flavor and comes in one of Americans’ favorite forms: cased meat. Sweetbreads, made from animal thymus or pancreas, are another example of mixing something Americans typically enjoy — fried foods — with a piece of meat that might otherwise be unpalatable.
Although often included in discussions of offal, some parts of the animal — such as the tail, feet, head, ears, and even underused cuts of muscle tissue — are more meat than organ, yet have similar health benefits and equally distinctive tastes.
Head cheese, for example, takes full advantage of all the delicious bits of meat and tissue present in the head. This terrine is made by simmering a calf or pig head — or, less commonly, the head of a sheep or cow — in aromatics until tender then binding the meat with the resulting head stock, creating a gelatinous meat jelly that tastes far better than it sounds. Likewise, fried pigs’ ears, a popular dish in many different cultures, have a texture and taste somewhat reminiscent of bacon.
If you’re hesitant about consuming every part of the head, using only specific pieces — such as the ultra-tender, and ultra-tasty, cheek — is a good way to dip your toe into the alternative cut waters. Pork cheek in particular is prized for its fork-tender texture and depth of flavor. Or you can experiment with other delicious yet underutilized — and often less expensive — cuts from more familiar areas of the animal, such as the hanger steak, sirloin flap, or teres major.
All the rest
If you’ve ever witnessed a professional butcher do what they do, you know that there’s a lot more than just meat and organs inside an animal. But even those seemingly inedible pieces can be seriously tasty.
Bone marrow, like that served at Community Tavern in Chicago, has been a popular addition to many farm-to-table restaurants’ menus, and showcases a perfect usage for large bones that would otherwise be discarded. And even when the marrow within goes uneaten, bones can be ground into bone meal and used as an excellent, all-natural fertilizer, or boiled whole to flavor stocks.
Even the fatty tissue is a veritable culinary goldmine — and can be much better for you than we previously believed.
After rendering, fat can be used to help flavor other dishes, especially ultra-lean cuts that have very little natural marbling, and are prone to drying out as a result. With the addition of aromatics during rendering, chicken fat becomes Schmaltz, a Jewish delicacy that adds an unbelievably rich poultry flavor to any dish. Hardened fat can even be used to make sweet or savory pastries, depending on where the fat has been harvested from.
Now that you’re using the whole animal, learn how to use the whole vegetable, too, with our tips for root-to-stem cooking!