Haggis – the much maligned national dish of Scotland definitely deserves a second chance. I think many are put off by the organ meat ingredients and the way it has been traditionally prepared. But if you have a chance to taste a really good homemade haggis, you are, in my very humble opinion, in for a real treat. Chances are that you won’t have a buddy around the corner who just happens to be a haggis maker. There aren’t many of us around, sadly. So you might just have to strike out on your own and do it yourself. This blog will tell you how.
The summer before last, I decided to do a Burns Supper. My sister eagerly became my partner in crime, though she was initially reluctant about doing a haggis from scratch. When we got to the point of sorting out meat proportions and spicing, she was quite pleased with our enterprise.
If you have any Scottish roots, you’ll know what a Burns Supper is. For those of you who do not, here is a brief rundown. January 25th is the birthday of Robert Burns, the most famous of Scottish poets. Sometime shortly after his untimely death after only 37 years on this good earth in 1796, some friends of his got together and held a supper in his memory. The bill of fare for the supper was centred around haggis: a Scottish sausage which comprises of lamb organ meats and oats boiled up in a sheep’s stomach. For vegetables, “neeps and taties” (mashed turnip and mashed potatoes). What a quintessential northern clime winter dinner: The haggis is prepared by first boiling the meat, then grinding it, then working the oats in, spicing it, stuffing it and boiling it ….. for quite a number of hours. Definitely a winter dish to be prepared over a hot stove keeping the house warm on a cold winter day.
I must have participated in Burns’ Suppers when I was a child. My sister – who was my wonderful partner in crime throughout this caper told me so. Goodness knows where I was – lost in the middle of teenage angst perhaps? But I have it on good authority that my father for some years did an annual Burns Supper.
While haggis is a signature Scottish dish, its origins and first mentions were from England. Beyond that there are accounts going back to the early Greeks and Romans of packing meats in an animal stomach and boiling them. Other cooking cultures have their variants too – Chaudin – is a cajun dish using a pig stomach.
So last year we did our lovely supper, and it was delicious. While Haggis is the centrepoint of a Burns Supper, it was not the only thing going – in fact it would be pretty dull without the other stuff. This included a salmon dish over an onion and mushroom braise, cheeses and oatcakes as an appetizer, leek and potato soup, and Cranachan, a wonderful desert of oats, cream, whisky and raspberries. I’d love to be repeating it this year, but alas I will be travelling on Robbie Burns eve, and I figure you really should do this on the day of.
I’ll start with how to make it, and if you are interested you can read on to its history.
Please note that while weights are given, the attached spreadsheet link will automatically scale your haggis ingredients to the weight of the organ meats you have available. The final total cooked weight of the haggis will be approximately 4 times the weight of your pluck (Pluck = all the organ meats). I’ve included weights below, because that’s what people expect to see in a recipe. These weights will yield enough haggis to fill a large haggis casing about 18” in length and about 5” in diameter. More on that below.
- 500g Organ meats of a sheep: heart, lungs, liver, kidney. You can (and I do) loosely interpret this. Where I am, lamb is both more expensive and harder to come by. Every month I buy meat to make into raw dog food for my dog. (Here’s my blog on that). This consists of beef: trim, a heart, liver, tongue. I use a little of this to make my usual haggis, though for Robbie Burns Day, I’ll plan well in advance to get the lamb pluck
- 500g meat – shoulder, leg, loin – whatever is cheapest and available. For my beef version, I use stewing meat. It CANNOT be minced however. It must be in solid chunks.
- 150g fat: This can be any kind of animal fat, including bacon drippings, fat from meat soups, any kind of meat rendering
- 265g steel cut oats or oat groats. These are roughly milled groats, not the flakes one customarily thinks of as oatmeal
- 1.250L (5 cups) water
- 4 large garlic cloves
- 300g onion – a medium to big onion
- 17g salt
- 20g pepper: It seems like a lot, and it is. Haggis is peppery by nature. But you can scale it back if you wish.
- 35g thyme
- Add other herbs and spices as you wish. I understand that in Glasgow there is a butcher that makes a tandoori haggis. Check the recipe variants on the haggis spreadsheet.
- 1 casing: Sheep stomachs are the traditional casing vehicle for haggis. They are strong and will not disintegrate in the long final boil. However In Canada and the USA, they are not allowed to be sold – apparently health concerns around bacteria in the stomach lining. Its all quite curious as regular sausage casing or beef bung are the intestines – I would have thought similar issues would be there too. What I have been able to procure is a special food grade synthetic casing from my butcher that apparently is intended for haggis. I’m hopeful that recent rule changes that apply to sheep lungs will also apply to their stomachs. Never use sausage casing or beef bung. They are not strong enough to hold up to a 6 hour boil.
Special Equipment needed: Other than the usual kitchen stuff, be sure to also have:
- Meat grinder
- A pot that can hold the casing – about 20L or a turkey cooker
- Butcher string
This will take about 4 hours to prepare, of which 2 will be active preparation. The final boil will take about 4-6 more hours. If you intend to serve your haggis on the same day it is cooked, prepare it the day before, and save the boil for the day of.
- Salt the meat and pluck and let sit for 40-50 minutes. Usually salting meat means you are sprinkling an eyeballed amount of salt on. Please use the salt called for in the instructions.
- Turn on the oven to 220F
- Spread oats on a cookie sheet and toast for 20 minutes
- Simmer the meat in the water for about 45 minutes. The water should cover the meat, but not too much. The quantity of water given should do the trick. You don’t want too much water, as it plays an important part later on. Do not hard boil it – you don’t want to reduce it, just make a nice soup of it.
- Extract the meat from the water, and reserve all the soup.
- Cook oats using 636g (or whatever quantity the spreadsheet turns up) of the meat soup. Simmer until cooked but ensure the oats still a crunchy texture. The remaining water will be used later on.
- Grind the meat. If you want the garlic and onions to be fully integrated into the mix, grind those too.
- Combine the oats and meat and mix thoroughly. (a good job for a stand mixer, but not critical)
- Check flavoring and spicing. Since the meat is cooked, you can and should taste as you go. Begin with
- Salt. The salt used initially should be fine, but you may wish to add more
- Pepper: Its an important part of haggis. Keep in mind that after it cooks the pepper taste will diminish.
- Thyme and any other flavorings. Check the other haggis recipes on the spreadsheet to see what others have done.
- Garlic and onion: These should be finely diced or crushed in.
- Use the remaining soup water to dampen the mix. It should be damp, a little like hamburger mix.
- Once you are pleased with your result, stuff the casing with the haggis fill, use butcher string to tie off the ends, place on a trivet in a pot that can hold the whole casing, and simmer for about 4-6 hours.
- If serving it at a Burns supper, serve the whole casing very hot with ‘neeps and tatties (mashed potato and mashed rutabaga). If using it for other purposes, let it cool and cut according to your needs.
A note on the spreadsheet
Perhaps its the geek in me but I like to present scalable recipes. In this case I felt that people would either have a fixed weight of organ meats, or want their haggis to weigh a certain amount at the end. The spreadsheet does either of these functions. All of the cells except the highlighted input cells are locked. If you share my geeky nature and want to play with the recipe yourself, go ahead. Downloading the sheet as an excel sheet will remove all protection, and you can mess with the formulas all you like.
The second tab is one where I have copied and pasted other people’s haggis recipes. I wanted to see what similarities and differences were out there.
What else can you do now that you have made a massive amount of haggis?
Here are some ideas:
- As part of an hors d’oeuvres offering. Think Pate.
- Fried with an egg for breakfast. Think sausage.
- Spread on bread or toast as a snack, lunch.
- In its own sandwich
- In a burger bun. Think haggis burger.
Purists would say that haggis must be served on its own, but I often will do it with suarkraut, or other savory condiments.
History of Haggis
Many culinary cultures have a form of organ meats boiled in the animal’s stomach . There are apparently references to this practice going back to the ancient Greeks. Apparently it was a good way to feed the troops. Although now considered as a Scottish national dish, it’s first mention was from England.
It’s easy to understand why it gained currency in Scotland. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746 Scots were at the mercy of their English conquerors who would take the best cuts of the sheep that happily grazed on the harsh highland lands leaving their tenant farmers with all the rest. What better way to use the offal or pluck and supplement it with a good hit of carbs in the form of the staple carbohydrate of the region- oats.
The future of the haggis as a national dish was sealed with the “address to the haggis” by Robbie Burns which is read at all Burns Suppers.
Haggis recipe links
This recipe provides directions for preparing the stomach.
Mrs. Lawrie’s Haggis
Mrs. Lawrie’s Reliable Cookery was the textbook used to teach Scottish girls 120 years ago about cooking and the ‘domestic sciences’. As it was a national textbook, it arguably defined the cuisine of that age. Here is the haggis recipe from that book.
1 sheep’s pluck (heart, liver, and lights).
Allspice and cloves if liked.
1/2 lb. beef-suet. 4 onions (par-boiled).
1/2 lb. oatmeal (toasted).
Salt and pepper.
I pint water in which pluck was boiled.
l Wash the bag well in cold water, scrape till quite white,
and rinse thoroughly.
2. Soak overnight in cold water.
3. Wash the pluck well and put on to cook, covered with
boiling water and a teaspoonful of salt, leaving the windpipe
4. Boil 2 to 3 hours, then remove from the water and
allow to cool.
place on a baking sheet.
5. Remove the windpipe and grate down most of the liver.
6. Chop the lights and heart, and mix with the suet (chopped) and the toasted oatmeal and the seasonings
7. Moisten with about 1 pint of the water the pluck has been boiled in and mix very thoroughly
8 arrange the stomach bag into three or more small bags and fill about half full of the mixture and sew up
9. Put in a pan of boiling, salted water, and boil steadily
for 3 hours, pricking occasionally to prevent bursting.
10. Dish on a hot dish and serve very hot.
Pan Haggis is prepared in the same way, but, instead of being put into
bags, it is stewed in a pan for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, a little more
liquid being required.