To impress your guests when hosting a dinner party, you need to either cook a familiar dish that is better than any they’ve tried, or cook something they’ve never had. The latter is much easier. Making your own haggis is something that almost no one does anymore, even in Scotland. But, provided you can get the ingredients, it’s easy.
Haggis is a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach and simmered for approximately three hours. Most modern commercial haggis is prepared in a sausage casing rather than an actual stomach. As the 2001 English edition of the Larousse Gastronomique puts it, “Although its description is not immediately appealing, haggis has an excellent nutty texture and delicious savoury flavour”. Haggis is a traditional Scottish dish, considered the national dish of Scotland as a result of Robert Burns’ poem Address to a Haggis of 1787. Haggis is traditionally served with “neeps and tatties” (Scots for turnip and potato), boiled and mashed separately and a dram (a glass of Scotch whisky), especially as the main course of a Burns supper.
Most people enjoy even low quality haggis once they get over their mental hurdles.
This all started when I was standing on a street in Tollcross, soaking up a few golden sunrays. I was looking across at my favourite butcher, wondering if it was possible to make my own haggis if I could get the ingredients. I walked over with the intention of having a chat. I ended up leaving with 1 sheep’s pluck (heart and lungs attached to what appeared to be a central wind pipe), 1 sheep’s liver, several chunks of beef suet (the hard fat from around the heart or kidney), and a large natural ox bung casing. Suet has a higher melting point than other fats. It is used to add flavour and to help bind the haggis.
The butcher told me that I had everything in the right proportions. All I needed to add was onion, oatmeal, and spices. His instructions included giving the casing a good wash as it was covered in salt, and something about boiling the offal. In my excitement I wasn’t really listening. By the time I got home his vague method was even more hazy so I did some research. First thing I realised was that there was no consistency in directions. Cooking times between recipes varied by 500%. Some recipes talked about removing the windpipe, others talked about hanging it over the side to let the impurities fall out. Some recipes even used different combinations of offal. I can sum up my findings as follows:
- Boil the offal until cooked through.
- Cool the offal and mince it.
- Combine the minced offal, minced suet, finely chopped onions, pinhead oatmeal, spices, and some stock (or the water you boiled the offal in).
- Stuff into casing.
- Cook casing until hot throughout.
I followed the above “recipe” guided the by phrase “If in doubt, leave it out”. I ended up with 2 large balls of haggis, one smaller ball, and a repetitive strain injury from untold minutes of chopping boiled offal. I put the large balls in the freezer and started to cook the smaller one for that night’s dinner.
There are a number of ways of cooking haggis, my prefered method up until this point being boiling. Within 5 minutes of submerging the haggis, it had split open and the stuffing had dispersed into the water. I strained the mixture, and tasted the boiled stuffing. All the flavour has escaped into the water and it tasted like what it was; insipid boiled meat. Horrible.
I’ve since discovered that pricking the haggis with a pin lets the air escape and reduces the risk of it splitting. I also believe that I used too many oats, which caused the haggis to expand excessively and split open.
Somewhat disheartened but still hopeful, I took one of the large ball of haggis and steamed it while preparing some vegetables. It steamed for around 90 minutes; long enough to become hot all the way through.
This time it was absolutely delicious. Easily the best haggis I’ve had, which isn’t saying too much as I’ve only ever tasted haggis from the supermarket and local pubs. This haggis had a different texture that I’d never experience before, probably due to the ingredients being chopped by hand. It was course and every now and then you would get a little piece of lung tubing or a chunk of suet that made for an interesting and enjoyable experience. The flavour was as it should be – strongly meaty with pepper and hints of other spices. I served it with some roasted vegetables and sauerkraut. Traditionally haggis is served with mashed turnips and mashed potatoes which, although delicious, is done ad nauseam in Scotland.
1 sheep’s pluck sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs
250g beef suet finely diced
1 ox bung thoroughly rinsed in several changes of water
2 large brown onions finely diced
3/4 cup steel cut oats also known as pinhead or Scottish oats (optionally toasted)
Various dried herbs and spices eg, paprika, cayenne pepper, oregano, thyme, etc
1-2 tablespoons of salt
1-2 tablespoons of pepper
Knife & chopping board
Large mixing bowl
Remove the heart, lungs, and liver from the windpipe and other miscellaneous tissue. Cut into large chunks.
Boil the chunks of heart, lung and liver for approximately 1 hour, or until cooked throughout. Remove from the water and leave until cool enough to handle. Reserve a cup of the cooking liquid.
Finely dice the onions and mix with the finely diced beef suet.
Finely chop the boiled offal (or use a mincer if you have one) and mix with the onions and suet.
Mix in the salt, pepper, and dried herbs and spices of your desire, for example, a tablespoon of mixed or provence herbs, a tablespoon of paprika, a teaspoon of cayenne pepper.
Stuff the mixture into the washed ox bung and tie off each ball to roughly the volume of an american football.
At this point each ball can be either cooked immediately, or refrigerated / frozen for further use. You may want to reserve some of the haggis stuffing for another delicious recipe – Balmoral chicken (sometimes called Highland chicken).
To cook the haggis, steam it until it’s hot all the way through. Timing depends on the size. Allow 1 hour for a small haggis.
Serve as you would any other meat – with a side of vegetables.
Alternatively, don your kilt, place the plattered haggis on the table with sides of mashed turnip and potato, address the haggis, then slice it open with a broadsword.
Suggested beverage accompaniment: Lagavulin 16 single malt scotch whisky.
Note: Unfortunately for Americans, lungs aren’t legally available. Apparently, tongue and kidneys are a decent substitute.