The 28-Day Offal Challenge

by Darrin on February 4, 2011

Liver and Onions

A month ago, I threw down the gauntlet.

After spending my entire life terrified of any animal foods other than muscle meat, eggs, and dairy, I decided to spend four weeks straight forcing myself to try offal of some sort each and every day.

Why would I do such a thing?

Well, as a long-time health geek, I have known of the fantastic health benefits of foods such as liver and marrow, but I was always kinda weirded out by the thought of eating them.

You see, I spent my entire childhood–like most people in my culture–thinking that organ foods are “gross.” This is fundamentally opposed to most other meat-eating animals, who almost ALWAYS eat the organs and marrow of their prey first, often even leaving the muscle meat to rot during times of plenty!

So how come I couldn’t bring myself to eat them? How come I rarely see them on restaurant menus when I go out? I decided to challenge myself to spend 28 days getting over my fear of offal.

How to Try Something New

So now that my belly’s full, the dishes are in the sink, and the challenge is over, how did I do?

Well, despite my initial delusions of grandeur that by the time these four weeks had ended I would have consumed an entire animal from “snout to tail,” this challenge ultimately ended up being more about overcoming fears, trying new things, and acquiring new tastes.

I’ll give you brief snapshots of what I ate (with pictures!) further down, but wanted to quickly give you an overview of what I learned and how you can apply it to your own life.

As most of my readers know, I don’t buy into the whole philosophy that you gotta starve yourself to get (or stay) lean. I believe that getting to 10% to 12% body fat is easiest by switching to a diet of primarily whole and unprocessed foods, especially meat and vegetables.

These foods fill you up far more than a meal heavy in sugar and white flour ever could. The omission of those food products will also help restore the hormone resistances (such as leptin) that cause your body to want to unnecessarily store fat away in the first place.

I know that this is hard news to accept in our culture, where refined carbohydrates such as high fructose corn syrup are found in absolutely everything. Say what you will about the marketing teams for these ginormous food companies, they know one thing really damned well: the tastes and textures that give us short-term gratification. The sweeter the better, and ideally so easy to chew that no silverware is needed.

It can take a while to get used to a diet of, say, pot roast, steak, roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and scrambled eggs if you aren’t used to eating these types of meals, but once you get used to them (over, say, 28 days!) you’ll never wanna go back to White Castle and beefaroni. (Okay, okay. Every once in a while…)

What I’m trying to say is that after these four weeks, I’m understanding what many of you might be going through in trying to eat better. No matter what, don’t give up after the first taste, cuz you’ll never know how much you may like it after you try it a few more times!

But enough of the preamble, let’s get on to the nasty bits.

Pâté–Liver With Training Wheels

Duck PateThink of pâté as liver for beginners. It’s essentially a spread made of liver, spices, and wine. (If that sounds gross, just think of what ground beef is.) Pâté has a strong taste, but it is delicious once you get used to it.

This is what I started out with at the beginning of the month to get used to the taste of liver without having to picture cow guts as I noshed away. I’ve found that a little bit of it spread on crackers is the way to go. (Yeah, yeah. Crackers are refined carbs and not the sort of thing I’d say constitutes a healthy diet, but I found it really helped.)

For anyone who wants to add liver into their diet, I’d suggest you start here. Once you get accustomed to the taste, then you can try some liver and onions at a restaurant.

Phở–Pure Deliousciousness

PhoIf you want to try offal but are still afraid, find yourself a Vietnamese restaurant and order yourself some traditional phở immediately!

I wanted to try tripe (aka intestines) for this challenge, but had no real idea how to prepare it. As it turns out, there is an excellent restaurant nearby where I work that makes phở with tripe, tendon, and just about anything else you can imagine!

Unlike beef liver, the first time I tried phở made with tripe and tendon, I was immediately hooked.

The tripe was very small, kinda rubbery, and had no real taste I could discern. Tendon, despite my initial concerns that it would be tough, is in fact very smooth and easy to chew.

I don’t know if it’s because tripe and tendon lack the intense flavor of liver, or simply because they came in a bowl along with plenty of steak, noodles, and the most delicious bone broth I’ve ever tasted, but phở definitely gets two thumbs up from me for being an excellent and delicious introduction to offal.

Marrow

MarrowDoes bone marrow count as offal? I couldn’t find a definitive answer, so I’m just gonna make up my own and say it does.

Bone marrow was another one of those things that gave me the heebie-jeebies every time I passed them up in the meat aisle. But hey, it’s all in the name of entertainment for y’all! :-)

And wow did I ever end up loving this food!

It’s nothing I could ever make a meal out of, but as a quick appetizer, beef marrow is about as good as it gets.

The prep is incredibly simple: stand the bones up in a pan and roast in the oven at 350 for 10 minutes. The marrow should be loosened up at this point, and you can poke it out with a knife or shish-kebab skewer.

Marrow is fatty fatty fat and every bit as delicious as that sounds. Just add salt and pepper… and down the hatch it goes!

Beef Liver–The Big Kahuna

Liver and OnionsAnd so here we are. Face-to-face with the liver of the beast.

The organ meat that I’ve always been most terrified of, and the one that I wish most to add into my diet.

I’ve tried liver several times before, but have never been able to handle it. I must have been reminded of all the entrails left behind after dressing a deer during hunting. Just… gross.

The first few times I tried it during this challenge, I fared no better. Gag reflex was working overdrive. But dammit, I kept going! I learned a few nuggets of wisdom here for those of you wanting to try liver for the first time:

  1. Have someone else cook it. If you’re going to try liver, make sure it’s done right. This is easiest if you go to a restaurant or have someone more experienced cook it.
  2. If you do cook it, don’t overdo it! Liver, like a good steak, shouldn’t be well done. It should only be lightly cooked. Liver has a distinct taste that may not be to your liking. Overcooking only intensifies this flavor.
  3. Try it as cold leftovers. Seriously. For some reason I can handle liver much better straight from the fridge the next day. This seems to bring the taste down a couple of notches.

On the one hand, I can see why liver is so beloved by a small subset of people: the smooth, soft texture is really awesome. I’m sure my caveman forebears would have much preferred this over a tough, uncooked chuck.

By the end of these 28 days, I could eat a slice of liver without being grossed out in the slightest. I’m proud to say I’ve overcome my trepidation and look forward to including it in my diet on a weekly basis from now on.

On the other hand, I still couldn’t eat a pound of the stuff, although I routinely eat that much roast beef or steak in one sitting. I guess I just like the flavor better. So for now, liver will remain a small appetizer before dinner.

The End of the Challenge… Or a New Beginning?

And so I’ve slayed the dragon (and eaten his liver). I don’t see it all ending here, however. I’m looking forward to incorporating more of these foods into my everyday life. They are loaded with nutrients and tend to be cheap in our organ-phobic culture. Who knows, perhaps I’ll do a “sequel” in a while where I try some even scarier cuts: heart, kidneys, sweetbreads, etc…

And thus ends the first challenge of 2011. I’ve got more coming up, so don’t touch that dial.

How about you? Have you ever been able to overcome any food fears that you’ve had?

{ 9 comments }

Brad Alexander February 5, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Darrin, max respect for trying this out. I’m really intrigued.

When I first started eating Paleo I tried to eat offal but I just couldn’t stomach it. I think it is important for the extra fats. I have this distinct memory of my flatmate giving me lamb kidneys and mushrooms for breakfast just before I went and played a game of rugby. Suffice to say it didn’t stay down.

I like your method of stepping it up little by little. I think that’s what I was lacking, I just tried to dive in headfirst. I already like pate so I think that’s a start. If you keep this addition to your diet up I’d be keen to hear some more about how it goes in the future.

Alykhan - Fitness Breakout February 6, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Darrin,

Congrats on completing the challenge! Last year, I overcame a couple of food fears I’ve had my entire life, the most notable being cottage cheese. I used a similar technique to what you did with the pate and started eating it with toast as a spread. Now, I really enjoy it. Although I don’t consider myself to be a picky eater (anymore), there are still a couple of food phobias I’ve got that I’d like to overcome and reading this post makes me confident that anything is possible!

Alykhan

Raymond - ZenMyFitness February 8, 2011 at 5:39 am

Congratulations that’s one experiment I couldn’t do but you passed with flying colors as far as I’m concerned and who knows maybe as other especially westerners pick up on it maybe we can learn to use more of an animal.
I just celebrated chinese New Year so I ate the customary Chicken Feet but when the rice porridge turned up with offal and pig’s blood I kindly turned that one down!
Raymond

Lance - LanceTraining.com February 8, 2011 at 7:53 am

Good going for breaking down your food barriers, if you’ve only been having muscle meat then you have been missing out on some tasty treats and some absolutely disgusting ones as well!

I love liver, but can’t cook it because of all the blood that seeps out of it when it cooks. Blood doesn’t bother me usually but when it comes to food it puts me off completely, so I make my wife do it so I dont look! lol

Darrin February 8, 2011 at 2:30 pm

@Brad

I’ll definitely keep everyone up to speed. Perhaps next up you can try some pho if you have a Vietnamese restaurant near you!

@Alykhan

Nice! I know several people who are weirded out by cottage cheese, but I’ve always loved the stuff.

@Raymond

Hey, you gotta know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em! I’m sure I’d have trouble with pig’s blood as well.

@Lance

Haha. Even more reason to have someone else prepare it for you the first time!

bubba29 February 17, 2011 at 12:58 pm

did you notice any physical or health changes during your experiment?

Nancy February 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Try chicken! I can eat chicken liver, but not beef liver. The flavor of the chicken liver isn’t as strong. I love chicken hearts simmered in chicken broth with onions and a few veggies. I also love chicken gizzards cooked until meltingly tender in marinara sauce. It helps if you par-boil them first. If at all possible I try to get these organ meats from pastured chickens, but most independent farmers won’t put the effort into cleaning and saving the gizzards. You can usually get hearts and livers from them if they process enough chickens.

Sarah February 17, 2011 at 1:33 pm

I saw this post on a link from hunter-gatherer.com – what a great idea for a challenge!

For the record, heart is a LOT easier to deal with than liver. Get a whole one, stuff it with something yummy, and throw it in the crock pot in a few cups of wine. Use lots of herbs like garlic & thyme, bacon, mushrooms, onions, etc… it’s delicious, with a meatier texture than liver, and a milder taste. It’s also *extremely* filling – one beef heart can produce a good meal for 5-6 people. Or, leftovers for a week :-)

Darrin February 17, 2011 at 8:06 pm

@Bubba

I didn’t notice any difference in body composition, but wasn’t really expecting any due to the relatively small volume of organs I was eating. I did start feeling more energetic once I was able to eat liver without flinching. Not sure if this was due to the vitamins in the liver or just the feeling of accomplishment!

@Nancy

Yes! I always collected the livers from the whole chickens I buy for roasting, but they tended to accumulate in the freezer without me taking any action. I have made homemade chicken liver “pâté” a couple of times, but never ate too much of it. The rest of the giblets tend to go in the stock pot for me.

@Sarah

Thanks for stopping by! Thanks a lot for that advice–I’d definitely like to try soon as well. (And I do love me simple meals that produce lots of leftovers.) Onward and upward!

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