Moms and chefs alike have been cooking up kitchen snacks out of giblets for years—are they onto something?
Like many Americans who revel in eating the nasty bits, my introduction to offal came at Thanksgiving. I don’t remember the exact year, but it was the early 1990s for sure because I remember the red, white, and blue Bugle Boy polo I was wearing. I also remember the blissfully maniacal look on my mother’s face as she plucked that blood-soaked bag of lumpy, burgundy meat from the hollow center of a pale-pink turkey carcass.
As the turkey roasted away in the oven, she tore the bag open, poured the contents onto a well-worn cutting board, and began working hearts and livers and gizzards with a meat pounder till they were tender and uniformly thick. She salted them and peppered them—nothing fancy—and then added them to a hot skillet swirled with olive oil and red pepper flakes. Ten minutes later, my mother had her snack. She didn’t share, but only because no one else in our family dared eat the stuff. I was horrified, but I also remember thinking, My mom is kind of a badass.
Giblets—the gizzards, livers, hearts, and necks of fowl—still mystify people. Where do they come from, how do you eat them, and what are we supposed to do with such a small quantity of anything? Top Chef Masters winner Chris Cosentino, whose forthcoming book, Offal Good, is a 304-page love letter to the stuff most of us view as inedible, understands this, but he also wants people to embrace the nasty bits because so many are “missing opportunities for deliciousness.”
“There’s a perception-versus-reality issue for what works versus what doesn’t with offal,” says Cosentino. “The heart, the gizzard—these are muscles. This is beautiful meat. They’re not throwaways as we think they are in the U.S…. These are ingredients that when treated correctly can be turned into something very special.”
There are, of course, some people who eat giblets at least one time a year because they know organ meat is the key to a rich, hearty Thanksgiving gravy. If you’re doing it right, you’re sautéing your giblets with mirepoix, salt and pepper, and herbs and simmering it with the drippings from the bird. Get the gizzard (which becomes tough after cooking) out of there, but chop up the heart and kidneys and neck meat, add it all back to the pan with some flour or cornstarch and maybe some cream, and pretty soon you’ve just made turkey breast that actually tastes good, thanks to the robust gravy.
It turns out my mother was in good company in her predilection for turning the odd bits into a predinner snack. Giblets, especially the gizzard, are popular snacks among restaurant chefs. While home cooks may throw out the bloodied fowl bags, chefs look at their bloodied fowl bags as though they were filled with gold coins.
“I think giblets are a chef-y thing these days because we’re all tired of eating the same stuff we serve to our patrons on a daily basis,” says Les Molnar, the executive chef at a trio of beloved Detroit establishments: Green Dot Stables, Johnny Noodle King, and the Huron Room. “Also, you rarely have more than a small amount of giblets on hand. Not enough for a dish, but for sure enough for a kitchen snack.”
When working with the innards of fowl, Molnar prefers a simple preparation.
“For the little things, my favorite is a brine of whole milk and salt and pepper. The milk adds some fat and pulls out some of that minerality that is off-putting to most. From there, either use your grill—yakitori for the grill—or your fryer—use Drakes batter mix for the fry. Cook them closer to medium, though, unless you want some truly leathery nugs.”
Kevin Moran, the executive chef at Deep Ellum and Lonestar Taco Bar in Boston, talked about a generational gap wreaked by the materialism—and the access to plentiful processed and easy foods that were a symptom of that materialism—of the Baby Boom generation. In Moran’s estimation, people stopped eating offal because having to eat offal was an indicator of low-class standing. And because the average millennial’s parents never cooked the stuff, that generation is wholly ignorant of the various merits of offal.
“And it’s not even just with offal—what happened to dark meat, what happened to chicken thighs? These are the best parts,” says Moran. “Chefs know this, because the people who never stopped being exposed to it all are the people who processed all the meat, you know?”
Like me, both Molnar and Moran were introduced to giblets by a matriarch on Thanksgiving.
“My first love of giblets, my earliest memory of them, is when my mom showed me her secret for making great Thanksgiving stuffing,” explains Molnar. “She added heart, kidney, and liver, and it gave it something more earthy. Something more—and this is my favorite word for describing food—unctuous.”
Moran described something similar: “I fell in love with it because it was always around on Thanksgiving. My grandmother would boil the hell out of that giblet bag. I used to watch her prepare it, and I didn’t have any education about how to properly prepare it as a kid…. I wouldn’t cook it the same way she did, but she at least opened me up to the idea that these organs were something you could—and should—actually eat.”
Chef Jamie Bissonnette even finds ways to bring the offal of fowl into his menus. At his Boston restaurant Coppa, he runs a special with a Bolognese using ground duck offal as its base. He fell in love with the organ meat when he was working as a young line cook.
“When I was young and wanted to be creative—line cooks aren’t really allowed to be creative—I had a chef who would give me the giblet bag from a chicken or the heart and kidneys of a rabbit and tell me to make something interesting,” recalls Bissonnette. “Now when I have a young cook, I do the same thing: ‘Here, make us a snack.’ I use it as a teaching tool.”
Giblets can be scary, especially if you’ve never cooked them—or if you never had a mother or a grandmother cook them for you. But dammit, the giblets—and especially the gizzard—should be eaten by everyone, and not just on Thanksgiving. The next time you buy a roaster from your grocer’s poultry section, think twice before discarding that giblet bag, or ask your butcher to set aside some of the odd bits for you. You just might discover your new favorite predinner snack.