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What Are Veal Cheeks?

Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins

Though not the most storied cut of veal, the slow-cooked cheeks of baby cows are considered by many to be a delicacy. Referring to the actual cheeks of the mammalian face and not the rump versions, veal cheeks are the heavily worked jowl muscles of the young cow, used to suckle and eat grass. To impart needed tenderness, chefs often pound and then braise this meat in a fragrant and flavorful broth.

Veal cheeks are not always readily available, often finding their way into ground veal instead. Butchers can easily provide these cuts upon request, though. In some areas of Europe like France and Italy, cheeks may be offered alongside the more common veal cuts like the loin, rib, breast, shoulder, shank and rump, from which cutlets and chops can be sliced.

Cooked polenta.
Cooked polenta.

Before beginning the braising process, veal cheeks must be properly prepared. Due to the cut's lack of natural tenderness, many cooks will pound the steaks first with a meat hammer to soften much of the toughest connective tissue. Afterward, garlic, salt and pepper might be rubbed onto the meat, leaving the cutlets intact or cutting them into large chunks.

Until recently, the standard production of veal involved removing a newborn calf from its mother within 24-48 hours.
Until recently, the standard production of veal involved removing a newborn calf from its mother within 24-48 hours.

The true flavoring and marination will occur during the long cooking process. One recipe at the Slow Food Kitchen Web site, from Italian culinary star Massimo Bottura, leaves four lamb cheek cutlets in a long, slow bath for as long as 30 hours, in a pressure cooker set to a steady 150°F (about 68°C). With the cheeks are a simple, yet diverse, blend of nurturing ingredients: chopped celery, onion and carrot as well as beef stock, reduced beer, a splash of balsamic vinegar, and some olive oil.

The possibilities for veal cheeks ingredients are as bountiful as a chef's skill and budget. Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse trims the cooking time to about five-and-a-half hours for 5 lbs. (about 2.3 kg) of cheeks, braising the cheeks in 2 cups (about 15 oz.) each of Madeira and red table wine. That is not all that carries this saucy stew, though, which Lagasse pairs with polenta. Braising in a Dutch oven or sealed broiler, inside an oven set to 275°F (about 135°C), the cheeks are bathing in a deeply flavorful broth of wine, oil, water, tomato paste, garlic, carrots, onion, celery, bay leaf, red pepper, rosemary, peppercorns, salt, pepper and various Italian seasonings like oregano and sweet basil. Lagasse, of course, suggests that chefs also include a dash or two of his Essence® spice blend to add a slightly Cajun touch.

Discussion Comments


@Ana1234 - I don't think the age of the calves is a problem so much as how they are often treated. Since the tenderness of the meat is the important thing, they are often separated from their mothers and prevented from moving so they won't toughen their muscles.

This is why the cheeks are not used as often as other parts. They are the one part in a veal calf that can't be kept from use if the calf is going to live and grow for the few weeks it has to live.

Life and death is just a part of the world and we all exist in the world. But inflicting unnecessary suffering on creatures so that we can have a slightly more tender cut of meat is disgusting. We're an empathetic species, and that is one of our strengths. We should be able to get past this kind of thing.


@clintflint - The thing is, veal calves are usually the unwanted males born to milking calves. They would be killed anyway, since they aren't worth keeping. They don't have the efficiency of beef cattle and they won't be useful as anything except a stud on a dairy farm (and you only need one or two of those).

I'd rather they were used for something than just killed and put on landfill, personally. They do the same thing with egg laying chickens, but you don't hear about it as much.


I'm not a huge fan of veal, to be honest. I can't get past the fact that the calves are so young and they get treated so badly. When you talk about lamb, it's generally considered to be anything under a year old and mostly it will be quite close to a year, because that's more efficient. A year is a long time for a sheep, long enough for it to live in the open air and so forth.

But veal calves are often killed only a few days or weeks after they are born. It's just too young.

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    • Cooked polenta.
      Cooked polenta.
    • Until recently, the standard production of veal involved removing a newborn calf from its mother within 24-48 hours.
      By: Marcel Mooij
      Until recently, the standard production of veal involved removing a newborn calf from its mother within 24-48 hours.