Most people shy away from eating liver, either because the idea of it grosses them out or they had a bad experience with it in the past. But this nutrition-packed organ meat is surprisingly easy to prepare, and there are plenty of options beyond the standard liver and onions. When you buy meat in bulk, liver (and the other organ meats) are a “freebie” for anyone adventurous enough to give it a try.
What you get when you buy in bulk
If you buy a quarter, half, or whole animal, you’ll invariably be asked, “Do you want the organ meats?” Although you may have never been brave enough (or maybe it simply never crossed your mind) to buy liver and other “odd bits” like the heart and kidneys individually at a farmers market or butcher, I encourage you to answer that question with a “yes!”
In theory, how much of the liver you receive will correlate to how much of the animal you ordered. So if you purchased half a hog, for instance, you’ll receive half the liver. But this often isn’t the case. For one thing, many people opt not to take their rightful portion of the organs, so you may end up receiving more than your fair share. On the flip side, the liver is a huge organ (a whole beef liver weighs about 10–15 pounds, for example), so even if you order a whole animal, you may not receive all of the liver because … that’s a lot of liver.
Some butchers will package the liver whole or in large sections (lobes). In other cases, the butcher will slice it and apportion into roughly 1-pound packages. If you’re given an option, choose the latter, as it’s a more workable serving size and some of the prep work will already be done for you.
A nutrition powerhouse
Regardless of your opinion on the taste and texture of liver, it is undeniably nutritious. A 3.5-ounce serving of pan-fried beef liver, for instance, has approximately 175 calories, a whopping 26 grams of protein, and an almost absurd amount of vitamins and minerals.
Most Prevalent Vitamins and Minerals in Beef Liver (per 4-ounce serving)
Despite its stellar nutritional profile, some people worry that liver is dangerous to eat, either because they believe it contains too much of certain nutrients and/or stores the toxins it filters from the body.
While there’s no danger from the high doses of certain B vitamins in liver (which are water soluble and easily flushed from the body in your urine), some people wonder about the high levels of vitamin A and copper found in liver.
Vitamin A toxicity is very unlikely to occur from eating liver. For adults, vitamin A toxicity occurs with a one-time dose of about 500,000 IUs, and chronic toxicity occurs when levels in excess of 25,000 IUs are consumed daily over the course of weeks or months. That 3.5-ounce serving of beef liver has 26,091 IUs. So unless you can really pack it away or are eating liver a majority of days, you don’t have anything to worry about. You’re much more at risk of vitamin A toxicity if you’re taking “megadose” vitamin A supplements or eating the livers of carnivorous animals (which have a much higher concentration of vitamin A). Excess copper could be a concern if you aren’t also getting enough zinc, but that shouldn’t be a problem if you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet—and if you’re eating liver in the first place, you probably are.
The liver plays a big role in neutralizing harmful substances that might otherwise damage the body, but the idea that it stores these toxins is a myth. Instead, these substances, if not properly cleared from the body, tend to accumulate in fat and nervous system tissue like the brain. Still, it’s advisable to only eat high-quality liver from grass-fed or pasture-raised animals.
Tips for making liver
Liver isn’t particularly difficult to prepare, but there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind:
1) If you’re new to liver, start with chicken, lamb, or calf liver, as these have a milder taste than beef liver. Pork liver has a much stronger flavor.
2) Soak raw liver in milk, buttermilk, or lemon water for 30 minutes to an hour before cooking. This can remove some of the mineral taste.
3) The organ is protected with a thin membrane. If left intact, this membrane will give cooked liver an undesirable chewy texture. Be sure to peel or cut away the membrane before cooking. Also be sure to cut out any connective tissue or tubes (ventricles) that may be present.
4) Don’t overcook liver. The more it’s cooked, the chewier it becomes. It may seem counterintuitive when cooking something as “gross” as liver, but you definitely want to err on the rare side. If your cooked liver is gray, you’ve overdone it. Aim for pink instead. Cut raw liver into thin strips or small pieces to ensure it cooks quickly but evenly. Even if your liver came sliced, you’ll likely still need to cut it into smaller strips or pieces.
Some recipes to try
When most people think about eating liver, the first thing that comes to mind is liver and onions. There are plenty of recipes out there for this classic combo (such as this Venezuelan liver and onions dish), but this isn’t my preferred way to eat liver. I’m not a big fan of onions in general, and when combined with liver they only seem to accentuate the organ’s metallic, mineral taste.
For beef, calf, or lamb liver, my preferred method involves coating the liver in crushed saltine crackers, pan-frying, and serving with a delicious lemon butter sauce. It’s a quick and easy recipe, and the lemon brightens up the “heavy” taste of liver.
Saltine-Crusted Liver with Lemon Butter Sauce
- 1 pound liver (beef, calf, or lamb), sliced thin
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/8 tsp pepper
- 1 egg, beaten
- 25 saltine crackers
- 8 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
- juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tsp sugar
- Thoroughly pat dry liver. Cut into 3" x 3" pieces.
- Place saltine crackers in a Ziploc bag and use a rolling pin to crush into fine crumbs.
- Combine flour, salt and pepper in a bowl. Use a second bowl for the beaten egg and a third bowl for the saltine cracker crumbs.
- In a large skillet or saute pan, melt 6 tbsp of butter over medium heat.
- Dredge each piece of liver in flour mixture until lightly coated. Dip into egg and then cracker crumbs, ensuring piece is evenly coated.
- Cook liver until crust is golden brown and liver is pink inside, approximately 2 minutes per side. Be careful not to overcook.
- As each piece of liver finishes cooking, transfer to a plate lined with paper towels and tent with foil to keep warm. Continue working in batches until all liver is cooked.
- I a separate, small skillet, melt the 2 remaining tbsp of butter over medium heat. Add the lemon juice and sugar and heat until sugar is completely dissolved. The sauce can be poured over the liver or used as an au jus–style dip.
Pork liver has a much stronger taste that doesn’t play as well with the mild butter and lemon flavors of the above recipe. For pork liver, try something with sturdier flavors, such as this Asian sweet and savory stewed pork liver recipe that incorporates sake, soy sauce, and mirin.
Pâté is another option that may be more appealing to some. Mild-tasting chicken liver is usually used (check out this bourbon chicken liver pâté recipe), but you can use any type of liver you have. For beef, give this bacon-beef pâté with rosemary and thyme recipe a try. Pork liver can be turned into decadent pork liver mousse.
Sneaking liver into your meals
If you want to incorporate liver into your diet but are worried that you or your family won’t like it, there are a couple easy ways to hide it in everyday dishes. If you have a meat grinder of food processor, you can grind any type of liver and mix it in with ground meat at a ratio of about one part liver to three parts ground meat. This effectively masks the texture and most of the taste, while giving burgers, tacos, meatballs, and the like a huge nutritional boost. You can also create a rich stock with the liver and any other organ meats or bones you may have. This stock can then be used as a base for soups or stews, braising meat, or cooking grains like rice or quinoa.
For more guidance on cooking organ meats and other “odd bits,” check out Chapter 8 of There’s a Cow in My Freezer.