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Pan-fried calves' liver and red onions

Updated: Fri, 11 February, 2022

Pan fried calves’ liver with thickly sliced, caramelised red onions is much, much better than your memory of fried liver from school dinners.

pan fried calves liver and onions

Offal needs better PR

I know there are more people who don’t like offal than those who do. That’s excluding people who say they don’t like offal but never try, rejecting it on the principle that it isn’t fillet steak. I won’t bother with those as they are quite simply morons.

But if you have tried, perhaps been force-fed badly cooked liver or kidneys as a child and have been traumatised for life – I understand. The texture is specific, and it is usually indeed cooked very badly.

calves liver with red onions

Eating nose to tail

Nevertheless and thank heavens, these days offal seems to be rising in status and popularity. It started at the beginning of the century, with London chef Fergus Henderson’s publication of The Whole Beast: Nose To Tail Eating.

I applaud the movement wholeheartedly. There is nothing worse from the ethical point of view than to pick and choose the parts of the animal you decide to eat and discard the rest. If you’ve killed the animal – figuratively speaking – at least show it due respect and make use of it in its entirety. It should be nose to tail – or nothing.

Especially that some parts and bits are absolutely gorgeous, tasty and nutritious and there is nothing unsightly about them when presented on the plate.

Cheeks are probably the tenderest part of the pig. Trotters are full of gelatine which is rich in protein and has a unique amino acid profile, linked to healthy joints and bones. Chicken hearts make the nicest casserole and beef tongue is so lean and delicate in taste, it could replace ham in sandwiches anytime.

For the less squeamish, pig’s brains are a delicacy (I confirm) as is the traditional French dish of calf’s head (tête de veau) which I found a little too gristly.

But that’s taste not visuals, and to discard an organ that lived within the pig or cow right by the side of an appetising muscle because it ‘looks yucky’ should be criminal, if only from the environmental point of view.

pan fried liver and caramelised onions

Why do restaurant cook liver badly?

I don’t get to eat offal too often as I’m the single offal aficionado in my house (but they've tried). So unless I’m cooking on my own, it’s mainly when eating out that I could treat myself to old favourites like devilled kidneys or liver with onions.

Sadly, it’s rarely a treat. I honestly don’t know how they manage to achieve it, because as you will see below, it’s very difficult to overcook liver.

But more often than not my excited anticipation of juicy liver, caramelised onions, gravy and mash turns into a gloomy contemplation of unbelievably tough, grainy, mushy and appalling grey slivers perched on a plate.

It brings back the worst memories of old-school school dinners. In fact, I’d be doing the dinner ladies disservice thinking of some of my pub and restaurant offal experiences.

I don’t know how they do it. They must fry the thing into oblivion and then keep it on the heat for years until a poor unfortunate soul like me imprudently orders it. Either that or they insist on sourcing the offal from calves with advanced cirrhosis.

I’ve sometimes been served it so tough and dry, it crumbled on the fork. I know the concept of doneness is usually reserved to beef steaks but still. Though on one occasion, having asked for the liver to be cooked medium, I was presented with a dish straight out of Rosemary’s Baby.

calves liver

How to cook calves' liver?

And in fact it is one of the easiest meat dishes to cook! If you buy calves’ or pigs’ liver already sliced, it will probably still not be trimmed of the connective tissue and veins. Cutting them out might leave your slices less neatly shaped but the eating experience will be unmarred.

Don’t salt the liver until it lands on the serving plate: salt will toughen it. But you can be liberal with black pepper, and that’s all it needs.

Thinly sliced liver cooks in about a minute on one side, in hot and foaming oil-butter mix in a frying pan with plenty of space. As soon as it’s turned over, I tuck the thick onion slices in between the liver, wherever possible, scattering the rest over.

The lid comes on and it all cooks on high heat for a couple of minutes, until the onions start to brown around the edges and need turning over, together with liver slices.

The final touch is adding a splash of water and returning the lid on the pan so the dish can finish cooking, also creating some wonderful gravy.

Only once you divide it between the plates, sprinkle some salt flakes over it. Now all you need is a couple of gherkins.

fried tender liver with red onions

More cheap cut recipes

Lamb breast is not very popular and it’s a shame – it’s lovely when rolled and roasted, with raisins and grapes for instance.

If you like lamb shanks, you’ll love gammon (ham) hock. Beautifully cheap, cook it like gammon i.e. simmer then roast, and serve with plum sauce.

Pigeon breast tastes a little like liver and it’s available all year round. Try it with five spice seasoning and orange sauce.

how to cook calves liver

Pan-fried calves' liver and red onions

Servings: 2Time: 10 minutes


  • 300g calves’ liver, sliced
  • 2 large red onions
  • black pepper
  • 1 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • fine sea salt


1. Trim any visible veins or connective tissue from the liver. Peel and thickly slice the onions.

2. Prepare a skillet large enough to contain the liver and onions in more or less a single layer, with a fitting lid.

3. Season the liver with black pepper – no salt at this stage as it might make the meat tough.

4. Heat up the oil and butter in the skillet over medium–high heat and when foaming, place the liver slices in. Fry for a minute, then turn the slices over (don’t worry if they curl up a bit) and immediately tuck the onion rings in between.

5. Turn up the heat, cover with the lid and cook for a couple of minutes, turning the onions once or twice until they start to caramelise.

6. When they are almost starting to catch on the bottom of the pan, add a splash of water and cover with the lid again. Shake the pan a little, cook until the water evaporates which won’t take long, take off the heat and serve.

7. Salt generously on the plates. Serve with mashed potatoes or with some crusty bread and gherkins.

Originally published: Fri, 7 November, 2014

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Your comments

Anna @ CuisineFiend
Hi Gloria - I have no doubt you're right, because the same approach works on chicken or pork for stir frying. I'll certainly try it next time. Thank you!
3 months ago
Luby’s Restaurant in Texas made the best liver I have ever tasted. Their secret was to wash all the old blood out of the liver until the water runs clear. This works on any type of liver. Try it,
3 months ago

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Hello! I'm Anna Gaze, the Cuisine Fiend. Welcome to my recipe collection.

I have lots of recipes for you to choose from: healthy or indulgent, easy or more challenging, quick or involved - but always tasty.


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