Friday, May 2, 2008

Real Food VI: Liver

Liver was a highly regarded food among many hunter-gatherer and traditional agricultural societies. It's not surprising once you realize it's quite literally the most nutritious food in the world. It's because the liver is a storage depot, into which important nutrients are deposited in case of later need. A modest 4-oz serving of calf's liver contains 690% of your RDA of B12, 610% of preformed vitamin A, 215% of folate, 129% of B2, 24.5 g protein, and the list goes on. The nutrients found in liver are particularly important for development, but are also helpful for continued health in adulthood.

Preformed vitamin A is one of the nutrients Weston Price suggested was responsible for the glowing health of the cultures he studied in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. It's an essential nutrient, but it's different from most vitamins (except D) because it acts like a hormone, entering cells and altering gene transcription. Thus, it has its hand in many important bodily processes.

"Vitamin A" from plant sources such as carrots is actually a group of vitamin A precursors called carotenes, which the body inefficiently converts to actual vitamin A. The efficiency of conversion varies around 10%, depending on the carotene and how much fat is ingested along with it. Nutrition labels in the US do not reflect this. When a nutrition label on a plant-based product says "30% vitamin A", you can assume you will get about 3% of your RDA from it. This doesn't apply to eggs, dairy and liver, which contain preformed vitamin A.

I'm not sure how this happened, but somewhere along the line we decided in the US that muscle is the only proper animal tissue to eat. We are missing out on the most nutritious parts of the animal, and our health is suffering.

I recommend purchasing organic calf's liver, 100% grass-fed if possible. Chicken livers are also nutritious but ruminant livers are the most concentrated in vitamins by far.

Here is a recipe for a liver pate. I recognize that many people don't like the taste of liver, which is why I chose this recipe because it is very mild.

  • 1/2 to 1 lb calf's liver, chopped into 1-in strips
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1/2 onion
  • 1-2 carrots (optional)
  • Sage and/or rosemary (optional)
  • Salt to taste
  1. Saute the onions and carrots in 1 tbsp butter until they're soft.
  2. Add liver and herbs and cook until the liver is just done.
  3. Crack the eggs right into the pan and stir them until they're cooked.
  4. Turn off the heat, add the remaining butter.
  5. Blend until smooth.


Anonymous said...


I'd been thinking about experimenting with some liver recipes. My mom's old liver recipe is tasty, pan fried in bacon grease or lard, then onions as well until crispy, but of course she always dipped the liver filets in white flour.

When I was a kid we went deer hunting every year. The night after a kill would be fresh venison liver and the heart, too. I was fortunate to learn to love liver early on. My wife does, too, so that makes it easy.

Any other livers that are particularly nutritious? How about duck, goose? I love fois gras -- any probs owing to the fact the geese are fed grain (setting aside the potential cruelty issue). Oh, and instead of bread or crackers to eat pate, I use celery.

Scott Kustes said...

rnikoley, all livers are nutritious. I cook my liver the same way as your mom, except without the flour. Just fry up the onions, then toss in the liver and eat.

Stephan, great post...I love liver and the nutrition it offers. I eat about a pound of it a week.

Scott Kustes
Modern Forager

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Richard,

That's great, you're fortunate to have grown up with a taste for liver. Same here.

The livers of ruminants are by far the most nutritious: cow, sheep, and deer.

Chicken liver is the least nutritious liver I'm familiar with, but still pretty nutritious. Duck and goose livers are more nutritious than chicken livers, but I don't know if that holds true for foie gras.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Scott,

A pound a week, good lord! That's a lot of liver! I think Sally Fallon would approve.

brassica oleracea said...

Oh my goodness, I LOVE liver! In fact, I just last night fried up some chicken livers with garlic and onions and a hefty splash of port (vino or balsamic vinegar works too). Ridiculously tasty. Liking liver is a recent development, and boy am I glad of it. Your post reeeeeally makes me want liver again tonight (veal!), but 2 days in a row might be overkill. :-)

Debs said...

Poor liver. As much as I hate the American tendency to turn foods into trends, maybe liver needs a turn in the spotlight of trendiness. What would it take? Chefs at fancy restaurants putting it on the menu? An ad campaign? "Liver is for Lovers!" has a nice ring to it, although Virginia might sue us.

It's disheartening when even mainstream health "experts" dismiss liver and fail to correct misconceptions about it. Tara Parker-Pope from the New York Times blog Well responded to a reader's comment, about how he avoids liver because it has a lot of cholesterol, by saying only, "Ewww. No organ meats for me." Thanks, Tara.

So, in lieu of an ad campaign, I guess sharing information and recipes, like your entries here, is the best way to go. That is, until the New York Times fires Tara and hires you instead.

Stephan Guyenet said...

That's ridiculous. I can't believe someone like that could write for the NYT health blog.

Events On A Budget said...

I Stephan just came across your blog searching for organic calf liver. My aunt was diagnosed with cancer and we heard about the great properties that organic calf liver has. I have tried checking our whole food stores in florida but no luck. do you know anywhere on line that I can purchase it?
Thanks so much for your time!

Anonymous said...

Worth pointing out the liver *may* cause gout in those susceptible.

This is the first season I completely missed out on one of my favourite meals: grilled (broiled) liver, streaky bacon and runner beans.

Mother has been having gout attacks. She loves liver so I daren't cook it in her presence in case it tempts her to eat some. :(

djpope said...

Very cool stuff! I've been eating US Wellness meat's different liverwursts! They are delicious!

Anonymous said...

Where are you having luck finding calf's liver in Seattle? I've been having a hard time...


Jackie Patti said...

My mom served various livers cooked various ways weekly... two of my sisters loved it, and me and my brother would flatout rather die than eat it. So... it's not what you were raised eating as liver is still disgusting to me.

Not sure why my mom fought with us about it, as I remembered several years ago that I like liverwurst. With mustard and sweet onion relish, it's the best lunch ever.