Organ meats are an untapped resource in most healthy eaters’ diets. Although your grandparents and every antecedent generation likely grew up eating liver and onions, kidney pie, and organ meats stuffed into sausages, the people reading this blog largely did not. Now it is your job to rediscover what they were blessed to grow up eating. It may not be easy, it may take some effort, but it is worthwhile. Luckily, the beauty of organ meats lies in their nutrient-density—you don’t need to eat it every day to get the benefits. In fact, you shouldn’t eat most of them everyday.
In general, the same organ from different animals will confer similar health benefits. A liver will be rich in vitamin A and iron whether it comes from cow, pig, lamb, or chicken. But there are some differences between species, and when those differences are significant I will make a note of it in the article.
Without further ado, let’s learn about all the various organ meats.
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Probably my favorite organ to eat, heart is more like extremely nutrient-dense muscle meat than it is any other organ you’ll encounter. It’s very high in vitamin B12, riboflavin, and niacin. It’s rich in zinc, iron, selenium, and, best of all, CoQ10. CoQ10 is an interesting nutrient that increases production of ATP, the body’s energy currency. We can make it ourselves, but it seems to help have an external source, too. For instance, statin users especially need to take CoQ10 because the drug inhibits CoQ10 production along with cholesterol synthesis; doing so can stave off some of the muscle damage statin users often experience.
Pros: Heart gives me tons of energy. The most “high” I ever felt from eating normal food was when a friend served me up some fresh venison heart, just killed. It was like several shots of espresso, only cleaner. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t sleep. I ended up staying up getting a ton of work done. And then, after a couple hours, I was able to sleep normally. Maybe it was the CoQ10, or maybe something else.
Cons: Sometimes trimming the hearts can be difficult. There are a lot of fibrous parts that can detract from the eating experience.
Some people like to braise hearts for hours and hours, treating it like strew meat. I prefer slicing them horizontally into strips and searing them like steaks, quickly over high heat. Medium rare, always. Either that, or Peruvian-style anticuchos (which I can always find here in Miami).
If you get chicken (or turkey, or duck) hearts, marinate them in vinegar, hot chilis, soy sauce, and a little honey and grill them on skewers over flame or coal.
Read next: The Definitive Guide to the Carnivore Diet
I like to call liver nature’s multivitamin because it’s the single most nutrient-dense cut of the animal on the planet. Rich in vitamin A, iron, every B-vitamin except for thiamine (and it even has a decent dose of thiamine), choline, zinc, selenium, and vitamin D (if the animal is a fish or pasture-raised pig), liver
Fish livers have the added benefit of providing tons of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. Poultry livers are a bit higher in iron and lower in vitamin A than mammalian livers.
Pros: Delicious if you cook it right (to medium/medium-rare, still pink) and use a healthy liver from a freshly killed animal. As liver is the storage place for the “animal form” of glucose—glycogen—fresh liver can be sweet. This sweetness disappears as time-from-slaughter increases, however.
Cons: Absolutely wretched if you cook it wrong. An overcooked liver turns chalky and grey, fibrous and revolting. Once the animal is killed, the liver begins degrading its glycogen. Glycogen counters the inherent bitterness of liver, so if the glycogen is gone the liver will taste bitter. This is why most people hate liver—they’ve never had a fresh one prepared the right way.
One of my favorite ways to cook liver is using this Terry Wahls recipe for Middle Eastern Lamb Liver. It also works with beef or chicken. Or, you could try prosciutto-wrapped chicken livers. Either way, the trick is not to overcook it.
Another great way is to sauté ginger, garlic, and onions, add gelatinous bone broth, reduce until it’s syrupy, and then add salt and chopped liver to briefly cook for 1-2 minutes. Makes a really rich sauce.
And if you’re truly adventurous, you could marinate thinly sliced beef liver in a mixture of fish sauce, sesame oil, and lemon juice and eat it raw like carpaccio. Sourcing is key here, because parasites and hepatitis are a risk if you’re not cooking your liver.
Kidney has a similar nutrient profile to liver, albeit one lower in vitamin A and much higher in selenium and riboflavin. It’s slightly higher in thiamine and slightly lower in folate, niacin, and pyridoxine. The extreme selenium content means you probably shouldn’t eat kidney every day, just like the retinol content means you shouldn’t eat liver every day.
Pros: Kidney is very inexpensive, can be eaten slightly more frequently than liver due to the lower retinol levels, and often comes with suet attached—the fat in and around the kidneys which is loaded with stearic acid. The stronger flavors of kidney means it can stand up to bolder, zestier seasonings, giving you a lot of freedom in the kitchen to experiment.
Cons: Kidney can have a very disagreeable flavor unless it’s prepared right. Liver gets a bad rap but if you get a fresh one and avoid overcooking it, you can usually make it tolerable and even downright delicious. Kidney needs prep time, and older animals produce stronger-tasting kidneys. Lamb kidneys are usually milder and more tender than beef kidneys.
Bone marrow may not “feel” or look like an organ, but it is. Bone marrow is an active participant in dozens of physiological processes and contains osteoblasts (which form bone), osteoclasts (which control bone resorption), and fibroblasts (which form connective tissue). It is anything but inert biological material, meaning it possesses a number of beneficial micronutrients used to conduct those processes in the body. The thing is, the actionable components in bone marrow aren’t identified. Sure, you’ve got some B-vitamins, iron, magnesium, and selenium among other “classic” micronutrients, but there’s all sorts of other interesting stuff in marrow that doesn’t show up in the USDA nutritional database.
Pros: You’re eating one of hominid’s “first foods.” Back before we were apex hunters, we could pick up a big rock and smash the leftover femurs that other top but less cunning predators couldn’t utilize, giving us access to the marrow.