Sauteed Sweetbreads with Fava Beans Recipe

Prepping and cooking sweetbreads is not complicated.

Close up view of sweetbreads pieces sauteed with fava beans.

Why It Works

  • Sweetbreads can be peeled easily with a sharp knife after a brief simmer.
  • Cooking them is forgiving, as they are difficult to overcook.
  • Serve with something acidic, like lemon, to complement the richness.

The last time I dined on sweetbreads at a restaurant, the meal was colored by an incident that I'm not proud to tell you about, but I may as well given the moral of the story. We had only begun eating the sweetbreads and other dishes brought to the table when my friend used his fork to pick his way around the clumps of perfectly crisped, creamy sweetbreads.

"Look at all this membrane the kitchen didn't take off," he said, furrowing his eyebrows.

I peered more closely at the dish and spied a very small, yet discernible sheath on the exterior of a piece of sweetbread.

"How deceptive," he said with a grimace. "You order something thinking that the kitchen's going to take care of the prep work, and instead you get a pile of organs that are barely been cleaned up!"

"Deceptive? Deceptive? You think a little membrane left on a piece of thymus gland is deceptive?" I said.

"I'll tell you what's deceptive. Multinational corporations wielding insidious channels of power. Political candidates funded by interest groups that have their hands in every honey pot in this country. That's deception, and you're complaining about the membrane on a sweetbread?"

My friend gave me that horrified look of pity you reserve for people clearly off their rockers.

Then I got off my soap box (er, rocker, maybe) and proceeded to eat his dish of sweetbreads, because it's really lonely and not very fun being up on a high horse.

Sweetbreads, though mild in flavor, have an offal-reminiscent flavor somewhat akin to brain. People often describe the texture as "tender" and "creamy"; I would add "marginally juicy."

Sweetbreads are made from an animal's pancreas and thymus glands (called the "heart sweetbread" and "throat sweetbread," respectively). Heart sweetbreads are usually slightly larger, but they taste the same and are cooked the same way. They get crispy on the outside and stay soft inside, while the interior is almost ripe, bursting with meat juice.

Make sure you remove the membrane from the organ when you bring home your pound(s) of sweetbreads. To do this, simmer the sweetbreads so they firm up and are barely cooked through. Then, with your fingers and a sharp knife, peel away the membrane, the gristle, the tubes, and other animal-like bits you'll find in the glands.

Showing the membrane on an uncooked sweetbread.

Serious Eats

For whatever reason, the process of removing the membrane from sweetbreads is off-putting and intimidating to home cooks, but fear not. The sections of the sweetbreads are held together by this network of membrane and tissue, and the idea is to peel away as much as you can while still keeping the organ in sizable clumps. It's not that difficult. You may end up with smaller bits of sweetbread, but even those marble-sized nubs will stay tender when crisped up in the pan.

Besides its amazing flavor and texture, sweetbreads are nearly impossible to overcook. Unlike a slab of liver, you can sear the exterior of sweetbread to your heart's content, without worrying about the interior turning chewy and tough. Your cooking timeframe, in other words, is extremely forgiving and long—minutes long, rather than tens of seconds.

The only real concern? What flavors to pair with this dish of crispy, tender thymus and pancreas glands. Keep it simple: something sour, like lemon or capers, with good salt and freshly ground black pepper. The acidic component will be a nice foil for the richness of the glands. Serve with fresh vegetables, preferably those that are creamy and nub-like too, like fava beans and peas.

June 2011

Recipe Facts

Active: 30 mins
Total: 30 mins
Serves: 4 servings

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  • For poaching:
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Bouquet garni
  • A few cloves of garlic, smashed
  • 1 pound sweetbreads
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 pounds shelled and peeled fava beans
  • 1/4 cup flour mixed with a pinch of salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges


  1. To prepare sweetbreads: place poaching ingredients in a 3-quart sauté pan and add enough water to fully immerse sweetbreads. Bring water to boil, then add in sweetbreads and simmer gently for 5 to 7 minutes, until sweetbreads are firm but still soft to the touch.

  2. Remove sweetbreads from heat and let cool. With your fingers and a thin knife, remove membrane and other tissues and tubes by pulling and tugging the thin layer away from sweetbreads. Keep sweetbreads in large clumps.

  3. Heat a sauté pan with a tablespoon of butter and let it brown. Then add fava beans and sauté over medium heat until tender, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

  4. Coat sweetbreads in flour and set aside.

  5. Heat sauté pan with another tablespoon of butter heat over medium-high heat. Add sweetbreads and let surface brown by not moving from pan until each side is browned. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add fava beans back to pan and mix. Serve immediately. Squeeze lemon juice over sweetbreads and fava beans.