As some of you know, I am capable of eating pretty much anything in front of me. I once tried juicing an entire surf ‘n’ turf dinner into one smoothie (do not do this), and I tasted a bunch of glue sticks to see if I liked any. It’s a wonder I’m still alive. And as a cook, I love the challenge of messing around with ingredients just to see if I can make techniques work, like the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto challenge I tackled earlier this year.
The one thing I’ve never really messed around with, however, is brains. Most offal is a lot easier to handle, mentally, but for some reason brains are some next-level shit.
Fried brain sandwiches are a Midwestern specialty, with its epicenter in the St. Louis area. I’m sure you figured it out, but... people don’t eat them much anymore. Back then the brains of preference came from calves, but after the Mad Cow scare, most restaurants serving fried brain sandwiches switched to pig brains instead. There are a small handful of restaurants that still sell them, but unless you live in the Ohio River Valley, good luck finding one at your corner grill.
Also, brains contain an holy-shit amount of cholesterol. A 5 oz. serving of canned pork brains in milk gravy contain an unimaginable 3,500 mg of cholesterol, which is 1,170 percent of your daily recommended intake. That’s 44 times the cholesterol of a McDonald’s Big Mac. That information may actually be the scariest part of a fried brain sandwich.
My health always takes second-seat to all my decisions, so I decided to make one of these things anyway.
The easiest way to obtain raw brains is by calling a local butcher shop. You’d be surprised at what you can get by asking, because I scored some on my first try. Rob Levitt at The Butcher and Larder in Chicago kindly gave me a few pig brains for free upon request. Apparently they’re not a hot seller. Later, one of the butchers at the shop sent me the harvesting picture, if you’re interested, which is rather graphic. Otherwise, trawling around grocery stores that cater to immigrant communities is your next best option.
Inside the deli container, the brains don’t look like much, other than a gelled pink mass. From the top down you can see the squiggly bits, but from the side of the container, it really could have been anything. There was no discernable smell other than the faint odor of fresh meat.
Once I shook them out of the container, that was a whole different story. Those were definitely brains. And they were even softer than they appeared—a tiny touch was enough to turn them into a pulp. This was going to be a tough one.
And how on earth was I supposed to fry these things?
There aren’t a ton of recipes on the Internet, but with a little bit of browsing, I stumbled onto Sandwich Tribunal (funny enough, Jim is a friend of mine), where he attempted the same dish a few years back. So, as with his version, I used the a batter recipe which just calls for flour, eggs, baking powder, salt, and black pepper.
After being battered they were even harder to handle. Little bits and pieces of brain broke off from the main mass. Scrumptious. Part of me wonders if freezing them partially before battering would have been a better idea. Another part of me wondered if cooking and eating anything else would have been a better idea.
After a few test squiggles of the plain batter fried up okay, I let the gray matter sizzle. I wasn’t looking for a light fry — the idea of a possibly rare brain sandwich sounded like the opposite of a good idea, so I aimed for the golden hue of fried chicken.
The batter I used earlier looked thin, but it crisped up well. About five minutes in, the brains had set and I could flip the patties over with no problem. It’s a bit like frying egg foo young.
I have decided a good prank to pull on someone is to fry up some brain halves and tell them it’s a fresh chicken tender. The main requirement to pull off this prank is that you have to be a total bunghole.
Here’s the finished product! I secretly hated that it turned out so pretty. It looked surprisingly appealing, and just so I got the full brainy flavor, I didn’t make a sauce. I wanted the pure flavor of porcine encephalon.
(Confession: “Porcine encephalon” is not a term I would have thought of myself. I thesaurused the term “brains” on Google and found the word “encephalon.” I wanted to sound smarter for you guys, but in a plot twist, this confession actually makes me sound a lot dumber.)
Turns out, at least for me, that brains are delicious.
If you’ve ever had sweetbreads, which is a fucked-up name for the thymus gland, brains have a similar texture. They’re custardy and extremely rich, with the satisfying crunch of the fry batter. I liked the result a lot. Maybe I’m disgusting? Am I disgusting? I’m disgusting.
Flavorwise, it’s a much milder version of liver but with an added metallic aftertaste that lingers a bit. Or perhaps, the metallic aftertaste was the physical indication that I was about to experience some form of cardiac arrest.
My fiancée Davida said, after a few small bites: “It tastes good, but it’s past my limit for acceptable meat creaminess.”
Meat creaminess: In so many words, this is what brains taste like.
A fried brain sandwich don’t need extra fat like mayo, since they’re more or less a large globule of fat and cholesterol, so if you’re going to make one yourself, you’ll want something acidic or crunchy. A pickle, maybe a squeeze of lemon juice, or a squirt of mustard. You’ll be eating like a zombie in no time.