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.
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.
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.
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.1 The taste has never left us. Eat a big spoonful of roasted bone marrow and you’ll feel it. It triggers something special in you.
Cons: The only con I can think of is that it’s not always easy extracting all the marrow. Canoe cut bones are cut lengthwise, giving you instant access to the entire whack of marrow. They’re the best but also the rarest. The more commonplace horizontal cuts require that you fish around in the cavity with a spoon to get everything—and sometimes you leave a bit behind.
Much like marrow bones, large predators often leave behind the heads of their prey. A large cat simply won’t risk cracking a tooth to crack open a skull. Risk/reward ratio too great. A small upright hairless ape, however, will pick up a large rock to smash a skull open. Risk/reward ratio flipped. Brains of even land animals are excellent sources of DHA, the omega-3 fatty acid our bodies and minds need to function, the omega-3 fatty acid our ancestors needed to turn into the humans we know and love today.
Pros: Brain has a mild taste and a soft texture that easily melds with other foods. For instance, a popular dish in some parts of the world is scrambled eggs with brains. The two are seamless together.
Cons: Prion diseases, while exceedingly rare, are unsettling. Prions are impervious to heat, accumulate in the brains of infected animals, and can cause rapid-onset death and dementia in people.
Simmer whole brains in salty water full of aromatic herbs and spices for 5 or 6 minutes. Remove, let cool, then sauté in butter or avocado oil until crispy on all sides. A light dusting of potato starch may help the crispy form.
Tongue is a fatty piece of meat that has no special nutrient content; it’s your standard “B-vitamins, iron, selenium, etc, etc” lineup. But it’s really, really delicious if you do it right.
Pros: The perfect snack for a keto dieter, tongue is richly marbled with fat and tastes great sliced cold like lunch meat.
Cons: The skin on cow or lamb tongue is inedible and must be removed. If you do it right, the skin slips right off. If you do it wrong, you’re hacking away for ten minutes trying to skin a hot cow tongue and losing a lot of meat in the process. Perfect this process and you will be a tongue lover forever.
Spleen is sometimes called a poor man’s liver. It tastes a bit like it, but not as strong. It kinda looks like it, but not when you look closely. It’s high in iron, copper, selenium, and vitamin B12. It’s more delicate than liver with none of the retinol. In the body, the spleen filters out old red blood cells.
Pros: You can eat spleen far more often than liver because it contains almost no retinol while still being nutritious. And because it’s milder, spleen can be a “gateway” organ for people who want to learn to enjoy liver and other more intense parts of the animal.
Cons: Spleen is difficult to find. Most grocery stores simply won’t carry it.
This Tamil recipe for dry fried goat spleen looks great and I bet you could substitute beef or lamb spleen.
Lung is a surprisingly good source of potassium, at least as far as meats go. A 200 calorie serving of beef lung nets you nearly 800 mg of potassium along with B12, iron, copper, zinc, and a good amount of vitamin C.
Pros: Lung is mild, milder than most organs, and cheap. A nice way to get some protein and micronutrients.
Cons: Hard to find and take some cooking to render edible.
I once had a fantastic lung stew that I’ve never had since but often think about. This Austrian dish sounds very similar to what I ate. You can easily omit the flour and use other modes of thickening the sauce, like bone broth or powdered gelatin.
You can also simmer them in salted water for 20-30 minutes, allow them to cool, and then sauté in butter until crispy.
This is poultry-only, obviously (although a cow gizzard would be amazing if it existed). Gizzards are one of the bird’s digestive organs, chambers where foraged pebbles help grind up the hard grains and seeds the bird has consumed for better absorption and digestion. Think of the gizzard as a sort of biological mortar and pestle that you can eat.
Pros: Delicious grilled over open flame.
Cons: Only one per bird.
Treat gizzards like the chicken hearts I mentioned earlier.
As you can tell, the real stars of the organ show are liver, heart, and marrow. You can eat those and none of the others and get most of the benefits. They taste the best, in my opinion, and they offer the most upside. But if you get the opportunity, you should try everything I mentioned today. We owe it to ourselves and to the animals that give their lives to make the most of the available cuts. All of them. You don’t know what you’re missing.
I mean that literally: standard nutritional databases do not encompass all that an organ meat contains. Organs like bone marrow are certainly more than the minerals and vitamins they contain. And if you give any credence to the “eat like for like” concept—eating liver to improve liver health, kidney to improve kidney health, heart for cardiovascular health, and so on—we should all be eating everything just to be safe.
That’s it, folks. That’s the guide to organ meats. What are your favorite organ meats?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.