The reason no one likes liver is because it tastes like liver. It doesn’t matter if it came from a chicken or a cow or a pig or a turkey. You cannot mistake liver for anything else.
But I never hated liver because I didn’t grow up with liver. We were not a liver family. I remember opening up the refrigerator shortly after Thanksgiving and seeing a quivering brown-red blob in a saucer. The thing was about the size of a baby’s fist and at first glance I hoped it was chocolate pudding, but a closer look proved me very wrong. “That’s the liver from the turkey,” Mom told me. “I saved it for the dog.”
My next liver encounter was more intimate, but equally cloaked. Our family was dining at a Western Sizzlin all-you-can-eat buffet, and I thrilled to see what I took for a pan of stuffing, which I heaped on my plate. But it wasn’t stuffing, and immediately after that initial clueless bite I ejected it into a paper napkin. It was fried chicken liver, crispy and golden on the outside and chewy-mealy-dense on the inside. How could anyone be so cruel? Why would anyone want to eat this crap? I went back for a new plate, clean and unmarred by the liver.
Me, as it turns out. Now a flawed and embittered grownup, I want that crap, because it’s the ultimate grownup food. I yearn for liver at a guttural level and luxuriate in its otherworldliness. It demands a clear presence of mind and cannot be consumed casually. It’s intense and scowly but also charming and a tad goofy, the Henry Rollins of offal.
Prometheus stole fire from the gods for the benefit of mankind, and as punishment Zeus had him chained to a rock and subjected him to an eternal cycle of an eagle dining on his liver at sunset; since Prometheus was a Titan and therefore immortal, his liver regenerated and became the eagle’s kibble for following day, and so on. Not his eyes and not his heart, but his liver. This would all still be going on for poor Prometheus had Hercules not saved him. The eagle, assumingly, is still bummed.
Fire and liver go together very well. A good, crusty surface contrasts its almost creamy interior, and flavor-wise liver can stand up to a smoky char. I have yet to break out liver kabobs at a summery backyard cookout, though. When people get wind of liver’s presence, they ultimately give you crap—especially if they are children, vegetarians, or just wusses—and that’s tedious. Insult my liver and you insult me.
I try to be forgiving to the many vociferous liver detractors out there, since I was one not long ago, back when my palate was naive and delicate. Also, I think we Americans are culturally conditioned to reject liver. Recall comely young Mia Farrow, pregnant with the spawn of Satan, eating raw liver in Rosemary’s Baby. See, liver isn’t just off-putting; it’s sinister! Raw strip steak just wouldn’t have had the same punch.
The meat we eat is often intramuscular; it has a grain, a familiar way of behaving, a familiar chew. But liver defies our expectations of what cooked flesh should be. In its raw form, when plopped on a cutting board, it undulates like a demonic gelatin mold. It even behaves differently on the stove, sputtering and popping no matter how well you first blot it with paper towels. The term “a flash in the pan” seems custom-devised for liver, because low and slow cooking does it no favors. Oh, you’ll see recipes for boiled liver if you look hard enough, but don’t. A quick glance at the liver recipes in Time Life’s Variety Meats installment of its “The Good Cook” series reveals a surprising diversity in liver preparations: there’s liver masala, Spanish braised liver with almond sauce, liver baked in German white wine, Finnish liver cakes, French truffled liver, Vietnamese curried chicken livers, and an old English liver and oatmeal pudding.
“Since medical authorities have found out that liver is rich in Vitamins A, B, and C, this delicacy has jumped in price by leaps and bounds, and today’s calf’s liver, which formerly used to be given away to ‘feed the cat,’ now fetches a high price.” This according to The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery, published in 1948. Calf’s liver is still higher in price than other livers (save that of force-fed ducks and geese, which is really its own thing), and it’s my favorite for cooking as an entrée. Generally speaking, the larger an animal, the more livery its liver, and to illustrate this point I suggest you cook beef liver and calf’s liver side-by-side. Don’t cook the beef liver first, though, because its aroma will overtake your house and you’ll just give up on the whole exercise. Beef liver means business.
Compared to the other organs of an animal, the liver is huge. Usually it weighs about the same or more than the brain (this goes for humans, too). It job is to filter out toxins from blood exiting the digestive tract before it reenters the rest of the body. It also secretes bile, which the gallbladder stores for use in the digestive tract. Toxins, filter, and bile are all frequently cited jibes by those who avoid this nutrient-rich organ. Fair enough, which is why I buy chicken and pork liver from a local farmer. I imagine the livers of his livestock to be more like clean-eating Gwyneth Paltrows and the livers of factory farmed livestock to be more like Hunter S. Thompsons. Gwyneth is a champion of detoxification, so I figure her caliber of liver is good to have on your plate.
The livers of artic animals (polar bears, moose, walruses, seals) contain very high levels of vitamin A, as in “high enough that eating those livers can poison you,” but if you are eating polar bears, you have bigger problems than vitamin A poisoning. As for other animals—fish, fowl, furred—go for it. Liver is rich in other nutrients, and one serving packs over 150 percent of the recommended daily value of iron.
Liver is a willing canvass for culinary dexterity, because it needs to be paired with highly flavored and similarly aggressive foods in order to sin (see sage, bacon, mustard, fruit, vinegar, curry). The rote equation is creamy sweet crunchy + tart, and in the diner classic of liver and onions, you get the whole shebang. The griddled onions are sweet, a foil for the earthy liver, and if it’s done properly and the liver is dredged in flour before pan-frying, then the sauce (or gravy, as it were) cooked up immediately afterwards thickens itself from the starchy fond clinging to the base of the skillet.
The bigger the liver, the sharper the knife you’ll need. Livers of larger animals have an outer membrane that needs to be removed—peeled off, really—as well as interior tubes running through them that cook up tough and should be trimmed (if the liver is whole, you can simply loosen the outer meat with a knife and pull the tubes out through the end). In smaller animals, fowl in particular, there may be a gall bladder attached, or parts of one. Trim it off and discard it. You’ll know it’s a gall bladder because it’s the color of a blood clot you’ll think, “that does not look like it belongs here at all.”
For those who are neither scavenging wild dogs nor Rosemary, the ideal doneness for liver is brown on the outside, just pink on the inside. Bloody red on the inside is a no, and vomit gray on the inside is also a no. Thus, liver is best thinly sliced—half an inch thick or less is ideal. You can roast a beef, veal, pork, or lamb liver whole, but you’ll need a lot of people around to help you eat it, and that could take effort that’s better spent making another liver preparation with better keeping quality. I suggest pâté.
I turned 40 this month, and instead of having a big celebratory blowout, I decided to parcel it out in a yearlong series of indulgences. The first was to cook liver for dinner on my actual birthday, which fell on a Tuesday. Normally on a weeknight I’d make more family-friendly fare, because if there’s one thing I feel more strongly about than liver, it is the bitching and whining of my husband and kid. But you only turn 40 once, so I decided, fuck it: I’m going to make liver my way, for me, and everyone else can fend for themselves.
I started by rendering lardons of home-cured bacon and caramelizing onions in the fat. Then, in a different pan, I seared chicken livers in batches. The grease sputtered everywhere in a clumsy yet pervasive mist, reminding me why I had so many zits back when I was a line cook. But it was worth it. I deglazed the pan with chicken stock and red wine, then added the bacon, onions, and sautéed livers back to the pan while the sauce reduced and thickened. It was homely, gorgeous. I served it over polenta and rainbow chard and garnished it with toasted pine nuts. My daughter and husband ate hot dogs. The dog? Liver.
We didn’t do cake. I wouldn’t have been up for it, anyway. In essence, the liver was my cake. I sat at the table, sated, knowing I’d soon need to wash a lot of dirty pots and pans, though lots of pots and pan was what it took to get the job done right. Liver cannot be treated carelessly. But if you take the time to love liver, liver will love you back.
Sara Bir is Paste’s contributing food editor. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @Sausagetarian.
Raw and cooked liver photos by Javier Lastras CC BY