Nose-to-tail eating at its finest with this simple, savoury, herbed meatball recipe. If you've never eaten or cooked brain before and are looking for a less intimidating way to introduce this incredibly nutrient-dense food into your meal rotation, this meatball recipe is perfect for you. Use the type brain you have access to — I recommend veal or lamb. This recipe is completely grain and gluten-free and is suitable for all you Keto, Paleo, WAPF, Whole 30 people.
Much like hiding vegetables in foods, this recipe hides nutritious veal or lamb brain inside a beef or veal meatball for more squeamish eaters.
I find brain perfectly delicious on its own, but I'm not going to lie and say it's not a bit more on the "adventurous" side of culinary matters. If you're new to nose-to-tail eating but are determined to make a go of it, this meatball recipe is perfect for you.
Once you try this, some of the strangeness and intimidation that can accompany offal will disappear.
Actually, this is a delicious meatball recipe in general, even if you left out the brain.
The combination of herbs and spices makes for a perfectly savoury meatball that can be enjoyed with gravy, tomato sauce, or just on its own.
Stick some toothpicks in and make it an appetizer platter for a party.
This recipe perfectly exemplifies my nose-to-tail philosophy of food. An animal is more than its so-called "prime cuts" and offal like brain, liver, blood, heart etc. have been prized by humans since forever.
Considering how incredibly high in nutrition certain parts like the brain and liver are, it makes sense that our ancestors would have made the connection between optimal health and these foods.
And offal has been utilized in the kitchens of the poor and aristocratic alike. It is an absolute falsehood to assume that only the poor were eating these "odd bits," as they equally graced the menus of the upper and ruling classes in the historical record. Offal has fallen in and out of fashion through the decades and centuries for complicated reasons. Its eventual relegation as poverty food (I certainly grew up on it) is a largely post-industrial phenomenon.
And in the present that has even been reversing as top restaurants around the world extol the virtues of these forgotten bits of the animal.
Have you tried to buy bone marrow or oxtail recently? It is definitely not cheap anymore.
Cow Brain vs. Lamb Brain vs. Pig Brain
It all depends on what you have access to.
For me, it is easy to get lamb and veal brain. I have never seen a pig brain in any market here, though I have had it in Croatia.
You can use whatever animal brain you want interchangeably in this recipe. The nutritional profiles between them are also very similar.
Nutritional Profile of Brain
The brain is a nutrient-dense superfood that is a great source of essential fatty acid Omega-3 in the form of DHA, and even contains relatively high amounts of Vitamin C — something that really shocked me as I always associated Vitamin C with exclusively plant foods.
An essential nutrient for the human body and one of the building blocks of human tissue — protein is very important. And the best, most bioavailable source of protein comes from animal foods. Veal brain contains 12 grams of protein per 100 grams, lamb brain will have just slightly less.
DHA is an important omega-3 fatty acid and it is found super-concentrated in mammal brains. For example, 85g (3oz) of veal brain contains 727mg of DHA. To drive this point further, the NIH has determined that small children need at least 150mg of DHA per day, and pregnant and lactating women need at least 300mg of DHA daily.
DHA (and EPA) is only found in animal foods. The plant form of Omega-3, ALA, is found in foods like flax, canola, and chia, but they need to be converted first to the DHA/EPA forms which the human body can utilize, and the conversion rates are poor.
Vitamin C is an essential nutrient involved in the repair of tissue and the enzymatic production of certain neurotransmitters. It's important to the immune system and also functions as an antioxidant. Found mainly in plant foods, Vitamin C is also (perhaps surprisingly) found in the brain.
A 100 gram serving of veal brain contains 10.5 mg or 17% of your daily RDI. Lamb's brain contains even more, at 16 mg or 26% of your daily RDI per 100 grams.
Cooking methods and durations will affect Vitamin C content.
Copper helps your cells produce energy, as well as strengthening your connective tissues and maintaining your immune system. Copper is a trace mineral and only tiny amounts are needed. The excess accumulates in the brain and other organs and can cause various problems. There is even a hereditary disorder, Wilson's Disease, in which the body retains too much copper.
Veal and lamb brains are excellent sources of this trace mineral. As are oysters and liver.
Selenium is another trace element that is naturally present in the brain and other foods. Selenium, which is nutritionally essential for humans, plays critical roles in reproduction, thyroid hormone metabolism, DNA synthesis, and protection from oxidative damage and infection.
A 100 gram serving of veal or lamb brain contains way above the RDI of B-12 — 188% to be (almost) exact. Brain is also a source for other B Vitamins like Pantothenic Acid.
Potassium is a mineral that does quite a few things in the human body. It helps muscles contract, helps regulate fluid and mineral balance in and out of body cells, and helps maintain normal blood pressure by limiting the effect of sodium. Potassium also may reduce the risk of recurrent kidney stones and bone loss as we age.
Wild-caught salmon is an excellent source, as is beef, bananas, potatoes.
Brain is also a source of Phosphorous, Magnesium, Iron and so much more.
Combine the brain with ground beef (or veal) for this meatball recipe and you have an incredibly healthy, nutritious, and satiating dinner, snack, or appetizer.
Is Brain Safe To Eat?
Yes — if you're sourcing it properly from a reputable place — just like anything else.
Veal brain is sold in Canada, not the brain from older cows.
And "mad cow" type illnesses have never been liked to the brains of lambs, so if you are paranoid, stick to that.
Sourcing High-Quality Grassfed Meats & Organs
Find a local butcher that champions grass-fed and regenerative agriculture. One that supports small family farmers that are local to you.
For things like brain, you may have to look at Middle Eastern or Asian grocers which may carry both lamb and veal brain. The one local to me almost always has both for sale, fresh and frozen.
Since the brain is mostly compromised of fat it freezes beautifully with only negligible loss of quality.
Online sources that may also be local to you include:
Recipe Tips & Tricks
- I highly recommend grinding your own beef. My electric meat grinder has served me well for years and it's one of my most used kitchen appliances. It even comes with a sausage making attachment.
- If you're grinding your own meat, keep it very cold, go for the coarse grind plate, and do not overmix!
- It's best to grind the meat with the herbs and spices and then mix further, but gently, as needed.
- Choose a lean/fat ratio of about 70/30.
- If purchasing meat, opt for medium or lean, not extra-lean if you can avoid it.
- Do not crowd your pan, let the meatballs take on a nice sear and develop a crust as you slowly rotate them.
- These meatballs make for excellent meal prep ideas and can be easily frozen. Geat bulk food to make and have on hand.
- You can easily substitute ground beef/veal for ground lamb or pork too. Or a combination of meats.
- Brain can be briefly poached beforehand to give it a firmer texture, and I give instructions for that in the recipe, but it is not actually necessary.
Herbed Beef or Veal Meatballs Stuffed With Brain
Nose-to-tail eating at its finest with this simple, savoury, herbed meatball recipe. If you've never eaten or cooked brain before and are looking for a less intimidating way to introduce this incredibly nutrient-dense food into your meal rotation, this meatball recipe is perfect for you. Use the type brain you have access to — I recommend veal or lamb. This recipe is completely grain and gluten-free and is suitable for Keto, Paleo, Whole 30 people. This recipe scales up easily.
- Prep Time: 20 minutes
- Cook Time: 15 minutes
- Total Time: 35 minutes
- Yield: 3 lbs 1x
- Category: Appetizer
- Method: Frying
- Cuisine: Italian American
- 3 lbs of ground veal or beef.
- 3 lamb's brains or ½ veal brain.
- 1 small onion, finely diced.
- ½ head of garlic, minced.
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and whole.
- 1 cup of basil, torn.
- 1-2 sprigs rosemary.
- 1-2 sprigs of thyme.
- 1 bay leaf.
- 1 teaspoon red chili flakes.
- Salt and pepper to taste.
- Oil for frying — I recommend lard, tallow, ghee, or bacon fat.
Prepare The Brain
I give you instructions here for briefly poaching the brain. It makes it firmer and easier to work with. It is not entirely necessary.
- Bring a pot of water to boil, once boiling, reduce heat to simmer and gently lower the brains in the water for no more than 7-10 minutes. You may place them in a metal colander to make this easier.
- Slice the brains into 1-inch chunks or about a teaspoon worth.
Prepare The Meatballs
If you are grinding your own beef/veal, use coarse plates, add the herbs, the minced onion, about 1 ½ teaspoons of salt, the minced garlic, and the spices (except for the rosemary, thyme, single whole garlic clove, and bay leaf) then grind. Make sure the meat is cold and direct from the refrgerator.
- Otherwise, mix the ground beef gently in a large bowl adding the same ingredients as listed above, and skipping the ones mentioned as well (they are for later).
- Heat up a large frying pan on med/high and add some oil for frying (lard, tallow, ghee or bacon fat work best).
- Depending upon the size of meatballs you prefer (I like them on the smaller size, about one heaping tablespoon) scoop up some of the meat mixture withyour hands and then wrap it around a morsel of the poached or raw brain. I use about a teaspoon sized chunk of brain per meatball.
- When the oil is hot add enough meatballs so that there is an inch of space aroud each one. Do not crowd the pan.
- Turn the meatballs as they sear so that an even, flavourful, brown crust forms.
- Your meatballs will be ready in about 10 munutes if they're the size of the ones pictured. Larger ones will obviously take longer to cook through. Meatballs are done when they reach an internal temperature of 165°F
- For the last 5-7 minutes of cooking, add the aromatics into the pan: rosemary, thyme, 1 bay leaf, 1 clove of garlic. If they start t burn, remove them with tongs.
- Remove from heat and enjoy.
- You can eat these meatballs on their own or serve them with your favourite gravy or tomato sauce. A rich mushroom gravy with cream and butter is especially nice.
These meatballs freeze very well and scale up easily for meal prep.