For centuries, whole-animal cooking has been a part of cuisines around the world. Rooted in a desire to waste as little as possible, eating the entire animal makes way for delicious dishes out of the less obvious cuts of meat: necks, cheeks, tails, and the like. Now, offal — this category of offcuts and organ meat — is gaining much wider acceptance in the dining world. Food Republic wrote an extensive guide to eating offal in 2015, saying that organ meats are some of “the most nutrient-rich foods you can eat.” Plus, cooking with offcuts can be good for your business — since they’re not nearly as well known and in demand to consumers as, say, ribeye or chicken breasts, they are usually more affordable. Here are five of the most popular offcuts, and how best to cook with them.
Oxtails, the tails of cattle or veal, used to be a throwaway item in butcher shops. Now, they are prized for their deep, rich flavor. Oxtails are mostly made up of bone and fat — so in order to bring out that meaty essence, they must be cooked for a long time. Oxtail works best as a base for a stock or stew, or as a braise with aromatic spices and red wine. It is a particularly popular cut of meat among the various Caribbean cuisines — cooks will turn it into a thick stew with plantains, vegetables, and rice, like the Oxtail Beef at Pepper Pot Jamaican Cuisine in Queens, NY, or a show-stopping meal centerpiece like the most-ordered Jamaican Braised Oxtails at Peaches Patties in San Francisco, made with ginger, garlic, thyme, and onions.
Like oxtail, beef cheeks require long, slow cooking to bring out their best traits. This small, often overlooked offcut of meat is located right in the center of the animal’s cheek. Cheeks are worthwhile in cooking because they are both tender and lean, but still fatty — making them ideal in braises, gravies, and sauces. In Italian cuisine, beef cheeks can be found as a base for a ragu — the cheeks’ slightly milder flavor doesn’t overpower the tomatoes and the herbs. Beef cheeks also tend to soak in different spices uniquely well. For example, at The Chinese Laundry in Los Angeles, tender beef cheeks are spiced with cumin, scallions, and cilantro, and served over rice; and at Chela’s Tacos in Alamo Heights, TX, the beef cheeks come barbecued and packed into fluffy tacos.
Also tender, easy to cook, and good at picking up flavors, tongue is the ideal offcut for feeding a crowd with a large-format dish. All you have to do is clean it, simmer it, and (the most important step), peel it — then it’s ready to be seasoned, just like a chicken breast or a pork shoulder. In Mexican cuisine, lengua (the Spanish word for tongue) is ubiquitous as a filling for tacos — the meat nicely soaks in the chilies, cumin, and lime. Tongue can also be cured, just like any other deli meat — look for it stuffed in rye bread at Liebman’s Kosher Delicatessen in Riverdale, NY; or seared and topped with peanut curry sauce, basil, cilantro, mint, and jalapenos, as is done in the Beef Tongue Buns at East Side King in Austin, TX (part of the recent wave of Asian fusion that has hit the city).
Chicken livers, also easy to work with, are a true gem in the organ meat family: smooth, rich, and packed with protein and iron. The most standard way of eating them is in a pâté — a decadent paste made up of ground, cooked liver and spices, typically spread on toast (just check out the Chicken Liver Pâté on Toast at Mocha Burger in New York). But livers can be so much more than just a spread. You can deep-fry them in a preparation similar to fried chicken, just like they do at Scratch Southern Kitchen in Orlando. Or you can put them on a sandwich to add a richer note — like at Karloff, where the chicken liver is complimented by onions, egg, and arugula. However you slice this organ meat, chicken livers are a great way to add a luxurious touch to any meal.
For more unexpected elegance? Pig ears: they’re not just dog treats anymore. Eating pig’s ears is a common practice in a number of cuisines, including Chinese, Spanish, and Thai. In Thai cuisine, they are fermented and sliced into salads; and in Spanish cuisine, they are roasted and cut into thin strips, to pair with beer. The ears can also be seared in a cast-iron pan with herbs, or breaded and fried. The skin easily gets nice and crispy, the meat is tender, and the cartilage of the ears can take in a surprising amount of flavor.
So don’t be afraid of offcuts- they are often an easy and affordable way to add something elegant and exotic to your menu.