January 31, 2014

Awesome Cuts of Meat You're (Probably) Not Eating: Chicken Liver!


*Shudder.* The mere word is enough to strike terror and dread into the hearts of little kids and not-so-little kids alike. This is unfortunate, because liver is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. Our minds tend to automatically gravitate toward fruits and vegetables when we think about vitamins and minerals, but make no mistake: animal proteins are loaded with them, usually in higher quantities than we can get from plant foods. So when we hear that phrase—“nutrient-dense,”—it’s time to start thinking more about beef and less about, say, orange juice. And among animal foods, a category that delivers one of the biggest nutritional knockouts is organ meat. Yes, organs. You know, those other things animals have besides the muscle tissues that end up in our supermarkets as boneless, skinless chicken breasts, steaks, ground beef, and other such cuts designed to make us forget that the tasty morsels we like to eat come from creatures that were once living, breathing beings with organs, bones, skin, and feet. (Not to mention heads and eyes, but let’s stick with one scary thing at a time.)   

So, liver. Like most people in late 20th and early 21st Century America, I grew up horrified by liver. Not because of any stigma surrounding eating meat, in general, or organs, in particular. Mostly it was the smell. My mother, like any good Jewish cook, made a mean chopped liver. Or so I was told by countless family members and guests at our Passover Seder table. Personally, I couldn’t gag down even one forkful because it was so foul. Same goes for her (supposedly) delectable liver and onions. Two Eastern European Jewish-type delicacies, and I couldn’t stand either one. (I’ll stick with latkes and stuffed cabbage, thankyouverymuch.) It was the taste, but it was also the smell. If that stuff tasted gamey, it smelled even worse. But in my defense, I wasn’t one of those kids who tried something once, hated it, and refused to ever, ever give it another go. I’d tried liver several times over the years, and its appeal never got any better. (Or, more accurately, its repulsiveness never lessened.)

So, yeah, I grew up a liver denier, and I was perfectly okay with that. And then…

And then, I had to go and get myself a nutrition education. And in doing so, I opened Pandora’s food box. And what has been learned cannot be unlearned. What did I learn? As it relates to this post, I discovered that liver packs a nutritional punch as potent as any vitamin pill you could hope to find. Knowing that liver is one of the most body-building and life-enhancing foods to be had, I decided I needed to find ways to incorporate it into my diet, even if only occasionally. (In case you don’t believe me about the nutrition, check out the stats for beef liver [off the freakin’ charts!], chicken liver [also a serious wallop], and lamb liver [holy nutrients, Batman!])

I’m happy to report that the trick that has worked for thousands of others has worked for me: I’ve managed to sneak bits of beef and lamb liver into things like meatloaf and chili, where I know it’s there, but its flavor is completely masked by everything else. Still, since this was really just the grownup’s version of hiding zucchini in cupcakes and such, I knew at some point I would have to man up, grow a sack, put on the big girl panties and just eat the liver. (Pardon my language. You can take the girl out of the Air Force…)

So I’m even happier to report that I’ve found a recipe that not only doesn’t make me gag, but actually makes me look forward to eating liver! It’s true! Not to keep you in suspense or anything, but we’ll get to the recipe in a minute. We’ve got some other business to attend to first.

If you’re not turned off by the smell or taste of liver, that’s great. But those aren’t the only things that make people steer clear of this cherished peasant food. Another reason is the misconception that livers “store toxins.” It’s true that the liver is the main organ of detoxification (meaning, the one that helps an animal get rid of all the poisonous stuff it comes in contact with, plus all the harmful byproducts of its own, natural metabolism), but it doesn’t store toxins. It filters them out of the blood, has its way with them, and then sends them out of the body via the GI tract (i.e., in your poop). In fact, the detoxification role of the liver is the reason why it’s so nutrient-dense. On a chemical level, the enzymes involved in those detox reactions require a lot of vitamins and minerals. (Yes! I knew those biochem classes would come in handy someday.) There might be a small amount of undesirable substances left in the liver from whatever was actually still in it just prior to the animal’s demise, but the potential (and likely negligible) negative effects of that are vastly outweighed by the benefits of all the good things in liver. Regardless, if you’re concerned about this issue, it’s an especially good reason to seek organ meats from local farmers (or not so local farmers), who raise their animals free of hormones and antibiotics, on pesticide-free pasture, or on otherwise biologically appropriate diets. (If you’re in the Northern VA area, I get mine from Chicama Run or Smith Meadows, but I think they’re done with chickens until Spring.)

The second thing I’d like to mention here is a quick reiteration of what I said in the previous “Awesome Cuts” post about underappreciated and under-utilized animal foods: it’s important to consume organ meats because it honors the sacrifice of the animals that were born and raised for the specific purpose of feeding us. Sorry if that’s a little too woo-woo for you, but I think it’s a valid point. We’re pretty wasteful here in the U.S. of A. We tend to go for the pretty, easy, and familiar when we’re perusing the supermarket meat case. But these lovely animals are more than breasts, thighs, ribs, and rumps. (Get your head out of the gutter…) And it’s kinda funny, because these other parts and pieces—the organs, skin, fat, and bones—offer tons of nutrition, and they most often wind up as pet food! Not that our dogs and cats don’t deserve the best, but we tend to think of dog and cat food as things we would never let near our own mouths, and yet, they’re actually the stuff we should be going for.

And one last bit: I referred to liver as a “peasant food” above. I feel like, back in the “old country,” regular folk ate the organs because they were cheaper than the fancier cuts. That’s still true, for the most part. Organ meats will generally be a little cheaper per pound, whether at the supermarket or the farmer’s market, mostly because they’re just not in high demand because people—especially younger ones—are scared of them and don’t know what to do with them. (This might not be true of a market with a big Paleo clientele. Then, you might have a hard time tracking down organs, bones, and lard, because someone wearing those funny 5-toed shoes will have beaten you to them. Ha! I tease because I love…) The funny thing here is, while many of us turn our noses up at these things, in other countries they’re considered delicacies. France comes immediately to mind. You could go to some snooty French restaurant in a big U.S. city and pay a fortune for pâté, which is basically just liver and butter, sometimes under a layer of gelatin/aspic.

And speaking of pâté, on to the recipe!
This is an extremely close variation on the pâté by Diane at Balanced Bites. Maybe only 10% different. It’s pretty much her recipe with some very minor alterations. (Hopefully she won't sue me for this, because I'm a huge fan and that would be a major bummer.) Check out her original one here.

You will need:

1 pound of chicken livers
2 Tbsp cooking fat of choice (bacon fat is magic here, but you can also use ghee, butter, olive oil, or lard.)
2 shallots, chopped or sliced (doesn’t really matter which; this is all going in the food processor anyway)
½ cup red wine (cabernet is good; I’d avoid anything too sweet) – and a little more never hurt anyone
2-4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons dijon mustard
2 sprigs fresh rosemary*
2 sprigs of fresh thyme*
¼ cup butter, softened (Very important—make sure it’s softened. Leave it out for a few hours, or even overnight.)
Sea salt to taste (This is the one I like.)

Nice & healthy looking.

*If you don’t have fresh herbs, dried is fine. Use about ½ teaspoon of thyme and 2-3 teaspoons rosemary.

Check out the color of a raw chicken liver (on the right). This is what you want—a bright, vibrant, reddish brown. That’s how you know it’s fresh and from healthy chickens. (Livers from not-so-healthy chickens would be more brown and dull, maybe even almost gray.) I’ve read that the color is less an indicator of the chicken’s health or age than it is what the chicken ate last, but if the chicken was eating its normal feed and also out on pasture, eating the grass, bugs, and grubs nature intended, why would it be anything but vibrant reddish brown?) 

What to do:

Heat the cooking fat and sauté the shallots until translucent or even starting to brown a little. Add the livers and cook until all the pink is gone. Add everything else but the salt and butter, stir a bit, and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated/reduced. (A little bit left in the pan is fine.)

Everybody into the pool! 
(The weird looking stuff is dried rosemary and ground thyme.)

Allow the mixture to cool a little and transfer it to a food processor. Add about ½ a teaspoon of salt and let ‘er go until it’s all combined into a smooth consistency. Add the butter 1 tablespoon at a time, allowing the food processor to incorporate each before adding the next. Taste as you go: you might want to add more salt and possibly more butter. You should end up with a thick but smooth paste. This will thicken up even more in the fridge. (You can eat it cold right from the fridge, but you can also allow it to sit out for a while and get closer to room temp so it’s easier to scoop/spread.)   

If it looks like cat food, you did it right!  ;-)

The original recipe calls for a half cup of butter. That’s a lot of butter! A whole stick, in fact. Not that I have anything against butter, because heaven knows, I don’t. Personally, for my taste, I just prefer this recipe with less. No biggie.

Now, what can we do with chicken liver pâté? Besides just eating it with a spoon, it’s good for:
  • A dip for raw vegetable crudité (excellent with fennel, celery, carrots, bell peppers, radishes, & cucumbers)
  • A spread on crackers or toast, whether gluten-containing or grain-free
  • Stuffed jalapenos (possibly bacon wrapped) – I’ve never tried this, but it sounds good, right?

A note about butter: Check out the two butters below. One is the regular stick stuff you can get at your local supermarket. The other comes from dairy farms in Central Pennsylvania, where the cows eat grass.

Now look at the direct comparison when the wrappers are off:

The Land O’Lakes is on top and the Trickling Springs Creamery butter is underneath.

There are no camera tricks here and no colorings added to either of the butters. Notice the deep, golden yellow of the butter from grass-based dairies compared to the sickly whitish of the industrial stuff. (And imagine how much more pronounced the difference would be if I wasn't completely and totally lacking in photography skills.) This is visible evidence that these butters are not created equal. Yes, you pay more for the good stuff, but you know what they say: "Pay the farmer now or the doctor later." If you're new to the realm of real, whole, traditional foods, your fat sources are an easy way to start making simple changes and incorporating these higher quality options into your diet. (Note: I don’t mean to trash supermarket butter. If you’re not interested in seeking out butter from grass-based dairies, I’d much, much rather see you eat regular ol’ supermarket butter than, say, margarine, or soy and corn oil-based “buttery spreads” made from vegetable oils.) The difference here is from the cows’ diet. The chlorophyll and carotenoids in the grass the cows eat all day give the butter that bright, rich yellow. (The carotenoids are a family of phytochemicals that include more than just the beta-carotene we’re familiar with in carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, and other orange foods. Some of them are yellow, some red, others green. Pretty much any green plant [like grass] is going to have some carotenoids in it, and these pigments make their way into the milk used for the butter. Most vegetable oil spreads are yellow because of added coloring, not because of the natural nutrient content.) For brands you can find at some well-stocked supermarkets and just about every Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, I like these: Organic Valley, Kerrygold, and Smjör.

I’ll have other chicken liver recipes in the future. My mother keeps going on about how I need to try rumaki. And I’ll probably try my hand at chopped liver. (You can never go wrong with one of Ina Garten’s recipes. Although a whole cup of rendered chicken fat? Somehow I see myself cutting that way back. Schmaltz is a fantastic ingredient, but that seems a bit much, even to the fat-lover in me.) 

P.S. You could skip the food processor and butter entirely and just eat the chicken livers sautéed with the shallots, herbs, and wine. A second delicious way I’ve found to get liver down the hatch! Will wonders never cease?

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. Great article and good explanation of storing toxins "myth". I'm a chicken liver convert having been introduced to them while travelling around central and eastern europe. Scmaltz is tasty too, had it in Austria, although its normally eaten on a big slab of rye bread as a snack to go along with beer, so not so great when you are following a low carb diet!!!

  2. Your a lady after my own ��... Being of Eastern European Jewish decent, I to grew up with chicken liver. Never enjoyed it until I was an adult and figured out how to prepare it the way my taste buds prefer it. Glad you figured it out �� . PS love your blog and style!

  3. Growing up in Texas, my grandmothers (Granny and Mamaw) both fried chicken livers, hearts, and gizzards along with the rest of the chicken. To this day I still love those fried organs.

  4. Just dredged in flour with salt and pepper and pan fried in butter is how I learned to eat them with my Grandma. I am 73 and treat myself to these delicious livers now and then.