There’s a common misconception that eating the liver from an animal is, to quote Dick Gregory, like eating the filter out of a car. If the liver is the body’s primary filtration system, it must contain all the toxins it pulls from the blood, right? Not so. All the toxic compounds that the liver removes from the bloodstream are broken down into less-harmful molecules. Those molecules then enter blood or bile. Blood-bound toxins are filtered through the kidneys and exit the body through urine—toxins in bile exit the body through the digestive system as fecal matter. Toxic remnants do not build up in the liver, making it safe to eat and arguably one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet.
What the liver does hold on to are vitamins and minerals. Those nutrients are pulled from the blood during filtration and stored for distribution to other organs. A few ounces of liver contains the recommended daily amount of vitamin B12, vitamin A, riboflavin, and copper. It also has several vitamins and minerals that are difficult to find in high concentrations in other foods, such as phosphorus, selenium, zinc, and iron. New data have shown that current vitamin and nutrient recommended daily intake levels may be much lower than the human body truly needs. Studies of diets from around the world, specifically those of people farther removed from the global industrial food system, link extremely high levels of all vitamins and minerals with robust health and low incidence of all diseases. Liver and organ meats are often staples of such diets, providing a concentrated source of nourishment.
In all animals, the liver is located on the right side of the abdomen, attached to the diaphragm near the spine. When gutting an animal, all the digestive organs can be removed, leaving only the liver attached. You can remove it with knife or hand; it should easily come out with a few deliberate tugs. Tearing the liver will not damage it, but it will cause you to lose precious bites of the prized organ.
While all monogastric animals (pigs, bears, humans) and nearly all ruminants (cows, sheep, goats, elk, and pronghorn) have gallbladders that secrete bile, cervids, such as deer and moose, do not. This means that when pulling a liver out of a whitetail or mule deer, you will not need to worry about popping the small green sack attached to the livers of nearly every other type of animal (horses, mice, pigeons, and lampreys are also without gallbladders). However, if you find yourself holding a beautiful, shiny liver from an elk, pronghorn, sheep, or cow, you must remove the gallbladder carefully. Do this by either cutting underneath it or digging your fingers under the small tube connecting the bladder to the duct and gently pulling on the connective membrane (this technique takes a bit of practice).
To assess liver quality, check first for any significant scarring. Scars will look like starbursts or spiderwebs. The presence of scarring can occur from cysts, abscesses, or flukes, indicating a past or current infection. Large scars usually render the meat inedible, but more negligible scarring shouldn’t affect the taste or condition. A perfect liver will have no scars. To check for cysts, flukes (tiny parasites that live in the bile ducts), or infection, cut into some of the ducts and veins, looking for small worms or puss. Discard the liver if you find anything other than blood.
To trim the liver for cooking, cut off all connective tissue and any large veins or ducts. The veins will hold onto blood which can lead to many of the unpalatable flavors people often associate with the liver. The thin membrane on the liver can be pulled off if desired. Removing the membrane will make cutting and cooking more manageable, but it is unnecessary if you plan to grind or blend it.
Soaking liver in milk or saltwater can pull out any leftover blood and improve the flavor. I often cut the liver into cubes or strips, portion it into ziplock bags with milk, and then freeze the individual portions. This method has proven to be much more manageable and effective than attempting to soak an entire liver.
Liver can be eaten fresh, seared quickly in a cast iron pan, and left rare in the middle. The taste of overcooked liver often discourages people from eating it again. One of my favorite ways to add liver to my diet every week (and convince others to eat it, too) is to grind it in with my burger. Other organs, such as the heart, can also be ground with liver, meat, and fat for an easy meal full of vitamins and minerals.
But if it were up to me, I would turn every liver into pate—goat, venison, pork, elk, beef, chicken. Any liver can be lightly cooked with onions, garlic, salt, and spices, then blended with butter and cognac into a velvety paste, and spread on a thick piece of sourdough toast. With a few pickled red onions on top, you have the perfect meal. In the words of the 19th-century American philosopher William James, “Is life worth living? It all depends on the liver.”