Epic Kitchen Fail: Liver & Onions

Dear Readers, 

[Updates added later will look like this in the post!]

After reviewing Nourishing Traditions on Monday, I was inspired to try one of the cookbook's recipes for liver & onions.  In the process, I was reminded why cooking new recipes can be a real pain, even ones from good cookbooks.  I also learned a number of freaky things about liver (highlighted for your skimming) while researching this article.  I'm including a lot of links for you to explore about liver and issues related to eating it, so you can do your own research and decide what's right for you.  In this post, I will scare you first with liver facts, and then will demonstrate (with yucky photos) how I messed up the recipe for Liver & Onions. I've heard some people say with delight, "Liver and onions!  My Mom used to make that!"  Their mothers cannot possibly have made it the way I made it, or I hope not anyway for their sakes. Liver is probably not my calling.

As a food historian, I've run across many recipes from 100+ years ago for preparing organ meats, but today it's mostly gone the way of the Wildebeest.  In the case of liver, anyway, I am beginning to wonder if it's not for the best (although I can hear the collective intake of breath from offended foie gras fans here). [Update March 2018: Not necessarily.  Liver is actually a great way to prevent & treat some types of anemia (iron deficiency), since it provides potent amounts of iron, B vitamins, and folate, among other things. Nearly all ancestral diets I've studied included organ meats.  Try to buy yours from a local farmer who raises his animals on organic feed and as much pasture as possible, for best results.]

Good to know: liver can be rather challenging on the digestive system (its very high iron content being a probable culprit).  So if you're new to liver (beef and chicken being the two varieties widely available), please start by cooking up a very small amount and trying only a little bit at first.  This is wise when adding pretty much any new food to your diet, by the way. [Update March 2018: Try chicken liver first if you're just getting started with liver...a bit lower in iron than beef liver, but I've found it more digestible. Try chopping up small and adding to chili.]

The only type of liver you should avoid completely is polar bear liver, along with the livers of several other Arctic beasties.  All liver is quite high in vitamin A, but the livers of these critters are off the charts in terms of vitamin A content.

When I read that I was like, seriously??  Polar bear liver?  Early explorers ignored the wisdom of indigenous people in the Arctic Circle, ate the stuff, and often died badly as a result of vitamin A overdose.  This is probably not a problem for most of us today where the only place we sight polar bears, much less their livers, is in a zoo.  

However, the furry polar bear is a good reminder to us modern folks to avoid overdosing accidentally, short- or long-term, on vitamin A-containing things (animal livers, cod liver oil, multivitamins, and medications high in vitamin A such as isotretinoin can all add up, says Wikipedia).  For more usefulness on avoiding vitamin A toxicity, which sounds rather nasty (and doesn't necessarily require hunting down a poor polar bear--who does that?), please check out these resources from Healthline and The National Institute of Health (NIH).  The NIH also has a good, printable facts sheet on vitamin A.  Also, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2006), the vitamin A intakes of adults in developed countries may already exceed what we really need, raising questions about the need for supplementation (from liver and otherwise) and its possible health effects.  Too much of a good thing?

For even more perspectives on liver in the diet, some of them conflicting with mine, please see these articles from Dr. Weil, SF Gate, Chris Kresser, and Livestrong (the latter points out that pregnant women are advised to avoid liver because the high doses of vitamin A in liver can harm the unborn baby, a prudent warning to heed!  Why on earth would anybody take that risk? Liver can also cause trouble for people with gout and a history of kidney stones, says Livestrong).  

Now that I've scared you off liver for good, I'll continue my Liver & Onion saga.

I tackled beef liver the other night for dinner, thereby breaking one of my cardinal Rules of Cooking (Rule #21: Never try out new recipes on your hangry family at dinnertime if you can help it).

This particular recipe for Liver & Onions called for marinating the liver in lemon juice for several hours, which (according to Nourishing Traditions) removes impurities and improves the flavor.  I could not find anything online that provided any scientific evidence for how this supposedly removes impurities...I did find a couple places where people soaked their liver in either lemon juice or milk/buttermilk, which they claimed improved the flavor of the liver and helped some of the blood drain out of the organ meat (potentially lowering the overall iron content and reducing tummy distress? Maybe).  In any case, I soaked the defrosted, grass-fed liver in lemon juice for several hours beforehand. This imparted an unfortunate, funky lemon flavor to the meat once it was cooked.

Next, I patted it dry and followed the directions for removing the filament around the edges of the liver slices (please see photo gallery, below, full of completely unappetizing photos of my Epic Kitchen Fail, Liver Edition).  This part made sense to me, as the filament, which is like a little "skin" surrounding the organ, gets tough and chewy if you don't take it off first.  A sharper knife would have been helpful in peeling it off--a little difficult in spots.  

Things started to go south when I started dredging the liver slices, which I'd cut into bite-sized strips (the one good idea I had during this process) in flour as the recipe directed.  Little bells started going off in my head, which I ignored because I was hungry and wanted to get dinner on the table.  The bells turned into a siren as I melted butter in my Lodge skillet, and added the first of my flour-coated liver strips to the hot fat...disaster!  Smoke filled the kitchen, and my husband and I rushed around to open windows before our overly-sensitive fire alarm started going off.  The smell alone of burning flour, butter, and liver was enough to ruin my appetite.

Incredibly, things got worse (if that were possible).  The poor little liver slices refused to cook through, as I'd had to lower the temperature on the stove so the flour wouldn't burn.  So they just sat there, miserable in their burned-flour jackets.  I tried raising the temperature, which just made the kitchen stink again.  I tried stirring them, which made the flour coating come off and created a mess of burned flour in the bottom of the skillet.  I poked at them with my cooking thermometer to see if they were done, which for organ meat is 160°F, and which it took the liver pieces far longer to reach than it should have, about 15 minutes.  With the flour coating, you couldn't even begin to tell when they were cooked through.  

At this point, I began to feel that the whole experiment was cruelty to liver.  

Having earlier cooked up the onions and mushrooms in butter and set them aside, dinner was all ready to serve (over rice) once the liver finally cooked.  My appetite was mostly gone by this point, but in the interest of not wasting food, my husband decided to give it a go.  He slathered it up with Tabasco and ketchup, but even that didn't help him get it down.  Gotta love the man for trying, though.

Long story short, this version of Liver & Onions was arguably the worst dinner I have ever prepared in 10 years of cooking!  Oh well. You don't have to scroll through the photo gallery if it will make you feel ill, but if you're interested in how not to cook liver, you may find it morbidly entertaining.  [Update March 2018: Beef liver made me acutely really nauseous due to all the iron, so be warned!]



From the top: beef liver soaking in lemon juice; removing filament from liver and slicing; sautéing onions and garlic; disaster strikes as the hot flour burns; the ensuing mess; dinner, plated, which my husband declared "looks and smells like dog food!" (it did); not even Tabasco could save this supper.  

I'm sure I'm not the only one who's (barely) lived through an Epic Kitchen Fail and lived to tell the tale.  What are yours?  Please email the stories of your epic fails (with the subject line "Epic Kitchen Fail") to fourcatsinthekitchen [at] gmail [dot] com, for possible future publication here on the site.  It's worth talking about things that go wrong in the kitchen, if only because it's so funny (once it's over, of course. In the heat of the moment, an untimely kitchen fail is the Worst Tragedy Ever To Befall Mankind)!

Yours Truly,