A Case for Bringing Blood, Bones, and Offal Into the Kitchen
Jennifer McLagan’s award-winning cookbooks celebrate ingredients that many Western cultures reject or ignore. They include Bones: Recipes, History, and Lore (2005), Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal (2011), and Blood (2019). Far from a marketing stunt, each compendium reflects a topic that McLagan, who grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and now lives in Toronto, genuinely reveres. She has worked in the culinary industry for more than three decades as a writer, caterer, food stylist, and chef, the latter of which took her to kitchens in London, Paris, and New York. As she traveled, she noticed a distinctly American trait: a detachment from the origins of their food—meat, in particular—as well as how it’s processed, and what’s left behind. By writing about these ingredients, McLagan thought, she could reframe them as perfectly usable (and often, nutritious and delicious) assets for food, and show readers how to incorporate items such as animal testicles, gizzards, hearts, and kidneys into everyday meals.
Her approach to making such ingredients more approachable for at-home cooks and diners centers around chipping away at the cultural connotations attached to them. For McLagan, every part of an animal should be incorporated into dishes. “You can’t just be throwing parts away or using them for dog food,” she says. Often, her recipes strike a balance between respect for an ingredient and subtle presentation. In Blood, for example, McLagan includes instructions for making sweet blood gelato, in which orange zest transforms the metallic taste of blood into one of chocolate, and for whiskey-sour-and-blood marshmallows, in which blood is used in place of egg whites and is undetectable except for the cherry-red hue it creates.
We recently spoke with McLagan to learn about her desire to change perspectives around traditionally cringe-inducing foods, and how to cook with them.
How did you become interested in ingredients that many people are intimidated, or repulsed, by?
In Australia, my mother cooked bones. We had pickled tongue. We had fried brain and bacon. We had liver. We had kidneys. The ingredients just seemed like a normal part of eating to me.
And I grew up cooking “odd-bits,” too. I would go into cookbooks, especially ethnic cookbooks, and find recipes that used these types of ingredients. But with those recipes, they kind of expected you to understand what the ingredients were, and how to handle them, and I thought that was a huge gap in people’s knowledge. They didn’t know what to actually look for when they were going to buy brains or kidneys. I wanted to introduce that to them, and to tell them what the parts were, how to choose the parts, and then, how to cook them.
How might people who are odd-bits–adverse warm up to the idea of trying the recipes in your cookbooks?
When people are unfamiliar with an ingredient, they’re often prejudiced against it and they think they don’t like it. So, I like to slowly introduce people to an ingredient until it turns into something that isn’t scary.
I often tell people to start with something very simple, like heart. Heart is a hugely flexible odd bit. It doesn’t have a weird texture and it tastes like the animal it comes from.
Offal is another great piece to start with. It’s just a muscle, like the steak or the tenderloin that you’re used to eating, but it’s actually more flavorful because it’s a working muscle. Yes, it looks like a heart, but your butcher will be able to break that down for you. Once that part is taken care of, you can just braise it, and put it into any type of beef stew you want. You can grind it and make a heart burger with it, or cut it into small pieces and make it into a kabob, like Peruvian anticuchos. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can make steak tartare with it.
I also suggest getting out of the supermarket and heading over to the butcher—you should not be buying your meat where you buy your toilet paper. Butchers are making a comeback. When you opt for the butcher, you’re able to benefit from their skill. Though, you might have to order some of the parts ahead [of time].
Let’s talk about cooking with specific ingredients. Bones seem the most approachable of the ones you’ve written about—you can now find bone broth at the supermarket. What kinds of dishes can be made with that?
It’s funny because to me, bone broth is really just a standard stock with a fancy name and a much higher price tag. If you’re doing a braise or a stew, you can add a bone in to give it more flavor. I also would urge people not to be afraid of buying cuts of meat with bones in them, because that is where all the flavor comes from. If you’re going to the butcher, buy a cut with the bone in it and ask him to bone it out, or remove the bones. It's also always cheaper to buy meat with the bone still in.
I’d also like to see people eating more bone marrow, the soft, spongy tissue that has many blood vessels and is found in the center of most bones. That, spread on a piece of toast and topped with a bit of salt, is simply delicious. People say it’s full of fat, but it’s sixty-nine percent unsaturated fat. So it’s good for you, you don’t have to eat tons of it, and it’s very easy to prepare. All you have to do is buy the marrow bone, put it in some salted water, and roast it in the oven until the center is hard. Anyone can do it.
What about blood?
Blood is one of those very divisive ingredients. But if you think about it logically, people drink milk, which is kind of weird, and they eat eggs, which is also pretty weird. I don’t think blood is any weirder; it’s more just in people’s heads. Incorporating blood into your diet is another way to consume the entirety of an animal. Plus, it’s a terrific and cheap source of protein.
If you look at how much animal blood is produced each year, even just pork blood, we’re awash in all of it. There is really no reason not to find other uses for it beyond putting it into animal feed. We should be using at least some of it as a food source.
What does it taste like?
It’s very close to the taste of eggs. It has the same kind of creaminess, but with a bit more of a metallic taste. There’s a little bit of that taste you get when you eat liver. But it’s pretty easy to camouflage.
And you don’t have to cook with a gallon of blood. You can add a few tablespoons to a sauce to help thicken it and make it richer—and I doubt anyone would guess that there’s blood in there. You can go the other way and mix it with things like cocoa powder or chocolate, and make the most wonderful chocolate tart, where the blood is replacing the eggs. Because of the sugar, the chocolate, and the eggs, you can’t taste the blood at all.
What do you hope people learn by trying your recipes?
First of all, I want to get people cooking. By adding things like fat back into people’s diets, they can learn how flavorful the food they cook with actually is. Without fat, your food will lack essential flavors that make it delicious.
I also want to get people to think about what they’re eating. If you’re eating meat, you can’t really justify only eating a T-bone steak. You have to think about the whole animal.
By cooking ingredients like offal, you get more variety in your diet, and you can make things that are far more interesting. There are many options beyond the boneless chicken breast that people are used to. They need to know that.