Street-smart Sweetbreads

by Meha Desai
Antoinette Bruno
October 2014

In his kitchen at Zaytinya, Chef Michael Costa is taking everything good about sweetbreads and giving them an outstanding Turkish twist. “Sweetbreads are important to the cooking traditions of Turkey. They are prized above meat for their relative scarcity. The best sweetbreads that I ate [there] were simply cooked from raw on a charcoal grill. I wanted to have that smokiness and juiciness with ours,” he says.

Costa’s smoked sweetbreads, local red ribbon sorrel, tursu (pickled vegetables), sugar snap peas, bahar-spiced walnuts, and Greek yogurt is inspired by the rich street food culture of Istanbul and in particular by the spicy, smokey sweetbreads he ate on a trip there. “I wanted to celebrate and enhance the bold flavor of the sweetbreads rather than try to tame it with the classically accepted method of soaking, blanching, and pressing,” says Costa. In Turkey, it’s traditional to serve sweetbreads with yogurt, tursu, and an onion-tomato-arugula salad. But considering the sweetbreads were for Zaytinya’s late spring menu, Costa subbed in sugar snap peas and red ribbon sorrel. The acidity of the tursu, yogurt, and sorrel delicately balance the rich, meaty, and slightly nutty sweetbreads, while the crunch of the walnuts and snap peas add another layer to the otherwise buttery texture.

Smoked Sweetbreads, Local Red Ribbon Sorrel, Tursu, Green Beans, Bahar-spiced Walnuts, and Greek Yogurt

Smoked Sweetbreads, Local Red Ribbon Sorrel, Tursu, Green Beans, Bahar-spiced Walnuts, and Greek Yogurt

Various dishes at Zaytinya

Various dishes at Zaytinya

Chef Michael Costa of Zaytinya – Washington, D.C.

Chef Michael Costa of Zaytinya – Washington, D.C.

The key according to Costa, is the order in which you do things. Start by rinsing the sweetbreads several times in cold water. Then remove as much of the connective tissue as possible and peel them. “Use fish bone tweezers to pinch the membranes that you want to remove when cleaning the sweetbreads, and you can run your knife right along the tips of the tweezers. It works well for silver skin, too,” he says. Next he cures sweetbreads overnight in a brine of yogurt, honey, salt, and water. He uses Attiki honey, a Greek variety flavored with thyme and wild flowers. The next day, they’re cold smoked, chilled, and then seared to order and basted in butter. Costa finishes the sweetbreads with salt and olive oil.

“Don’t bother with blanching them. If you treat sweetbreads like meat, they will taste like meat,” he says. “Would you blanch a steak before pan roasting?” The brining, however, not only adds depth of flavor, but also helps with the color and texture of the final product—the lactic acid in the yogurt creates a firmer texture and the yogurt also helps to whiten the sweetbreads by diluting any remaining blood. 

The smoking dries out the surface of the offal, allowing for a deeper, more flavorful crust on the outside when they’re seared. As soon as Costa gets a deep golden brown crust all the way round the sweetbreads, he adds the butter to the pan, lowers the heat, and bastes them until cooked through. “This step is done for flavor—the roasted nut note that brown butter gives—but also to allow the heat to penetrate to the center of the sweetbreads, gently without overcooking them. I think of it as allowing them to begin the resting process in the pan while being bathed in foamy brown butter.”

Though he treats his sweetbreads like meats, Costa doesn’t recommend serving them medium rare, warning that over cooking them “totally changes the character of their flavor.” The sweetbreads should be just cooked through—seared for about three minutes and basted for two.

Sweetbreads Technique:

  1. Rinse the sweetbreads several times in cold water.
  2. Using fish bone tweezers, remove as much of the connective tissue as possible and peel them.
  3. Brine overnight in a mixture of yogurt, honey, salt, and water
  4. Next, cold smoke the sweetbreads with cherry wood chips. 
  5. Chill and hold until service.
  6. In a hot pan with canola oil, sear sweetbreads to order.
  7. As soon as you get a deep golden brown crust all the way around, add butter to the pan, lower the heat, and baste them until cooked through.
  8. Sprinkle with olive oil and coarse salt, and serve.
Related Photo Galleries