Animal fats have recently been implicated as the cause of heart disease, obesity and, in a roundabout convoluted stretch of logic, global warming. If you let health officials tell it, they’re pure evil. Reviled, shunned, and lambasted by the general public (thanks to less-then-sterling endorsements by health officials), animal fats have really gotten a bad rap.
It wasn’t always this way.
No, for hundreds of thousands of years, animal fats played a huge role in the human diet – whether it was Grok going straight for the fatty organs and tossing the lean muscle meat to the dogs, Prometheus making a meager sacrifice to the gods more appealing by draping it in swathes of fat, or Mom cooking with real butter instead of margarine. But you already knew that. I don’t have to sell you guys on the beauty of animal fat (after all, there was already quite a robust discussion taking place in the forums!), but the widespread societal backlash against animal fat means most of us don’t know everything we should about the stuff. For a lot of us, anything other than lard or butter is a mystery, and that’s a damn shame. There are tons of different varieties with many different uses, and we PBers need to be familiar with them all.
It has become part of the lexicon, used to describe the obese (“lard-ass,” “tub of lard,” “lard bucket,” etc. – we prefer “pail ‘o grains,” ourselves). For most people, merely mentioning it in a culinary context causes heart palpitations and shudders of revulsion. Fine by me: that just means more lard for us.
Lard is pig fat in both its rendered and unrendered form. The best lard is called leaf lard, and it comes from the fat deposits surrounding the kidneys and inside the loin. Leaf lard is “best” because it has little to no pork flavor, making it ideal for bakers (doesn’t really apply to us) and for general cooking. Next is fatback, which comes from the subcutaneous, thick fat deposits between the skin and the muscles of the pig. The cheapest is the soft membrane known as caul fat, which can be found wrapped around the internal organs. There’s also bacon grease, that delicious bacon-flavored lard that comes in handy when you’ve just fried up a platter of bacon and could really go for some eggs. If you’re not going to use it right away, don’t throw it out. Keep empty jars handy and just pour the hot grease in whenever you’re done. Store all your lard in the fridge, where it’ll avoid rancidity for months and be easily scoopable.
Whichever type of lard you choose, it can be used the same way you’d use butter. Stir fries, grilled steaks, fried eggs, and sautéed veggies are all delicious cooked in lard. Even if you don’t use leaf lard, the flavor is fairly mild, and the “porkiness” is minimal – if that sort of thing bothers you. Of course, the way you render your lard has an effect on the flavor. Dry-rendered lard (rendered without water, as if you were frying up bacon) tastes more porky, while wet-rendered lard (where the lard is rendered in water and skimmed off the top) is very mild.
The leaf lard from Flying Pigs Farm seems to get rave reviews online, and it can be shipped all over the country. Still, the farm’s located on the east coast, so unless you live nearby the shipping costs can get pretty prohibitive. You could just check out the local farmers’ market or the butcher shop. Pig fat is usually fairly cheap, and you can get a good amount of usable lard from a couple pounds of leaf or fatback. Don’t buy the cheap stuff in big tubs! It’s hydrogenated and full of trans-fats.
Lard is relatively stable, with good levels of saturated and monounsaturated fats.
Per 100 g (3.5 oz):
The holy trinity of poultry fats consists of chicken, duck, and goose. The concept of poultry fat is similar to lard; take the fatty portions of the bird and slowly render them until pure, unadulterated liquid fat is produced. Most foodies sing the praises of goose and duck fat, and for good reason: waterfowls, being relegated to the water, are generally loaded with fat for buoyancy and that makes for excellent eating. There’s more of it and what’s there is generally richer than fat rendered from a chicken. That said, there’s still a place in the kitchen for chicken fat. One popular iteration is schmaltz, which is poultry (usually chicken, but sometimes even pork) fat rendered with onions for flavor.
The public typically celebrates these fats for their potato-enhancing qualities, but I personally love using poultry fat as an incestuous accompaniment to roasted poultry. A bit rubbed on the bird before tossing it into the oven makes for crispy, delicious, fatty skin. Or if I ever do splurge on a sweet potato, I’ll usually fry it up in some poultry fat. Apples and pears are also good roasted in poultry fat; I prefer goose, but anything with wings and feathers will do.
Poultry fat is easy enough to find. I’ll sometimes ask the butcher for any extra skin he might have, and it’s usually incredibly affordable, much more so than lard. If your meat market processes skinless breast and thighs in-house, chances are they’ll have piles of poultry skin lying around too. You can probably even get organic, free-range skin for next-to-nothing. Goose and duck trimmings are far more rare and coveted, so you’ll have to pay extra for those – but believe me, it’s well worth the effort. And be sure to save the fat that naturally renders in the bottom of the pan when roasting a bird.
Store your poultry fat in the fridge for up to two months. It’s less stable than lard, but it probably won’t last long enough for you to find out.
Per 3.5 oz:
Tallow refers to rendered beef (and sometimes lamb) fat. It comes from suet, which is the raw, hard raw fat of cows and sheep, usually surrounding the loins and kidneys. You don’t see tallow a whole lot; it’s high in saturated fat, which makes it easily demonized. In fact, McDonald’s used to fry their fries in real beef tallow until, in the name of “better health,” they were forced to use hydrogenated oils instead. We all know how that turned out.
To make really good tallow, you have to be patient. It’s a slow process, but it’s worth it. Good tallow is solid at room temperature and incredibly stable, so if you’re dead set on deep-frying something, you’ll want to use tallow. Tallow is relatively mild in flavor, so you can use it for just about any recipe that calls for fat. It’s particularly great for browning meat for stews, curries, and chili.
You may have to special order suet, simply because there isn’t much of a demand in most areas. Farmers’ markets are good options, as are butcher shops. Just go a few days in advance and place a special order to ensure it arrives in time. Eatwild is, of course, always a good source if you can’t find it locally.
Per 3.5 oz:
PUFA: 4g (grass fed, remember, will have a better Omega-3 profile)
Ghee is rendered butter with all milk proteins and solids removed. It is pure fat, and it can be treated like an oil when heated. Nuttier than butter, ghee is completely stable at room temperature, provided you keep it in an airtight container. Like butter, ghee is incredibly high in stable saturated fats, making it ideal for sautéed dishes and higher heats.
I use ghee to grill steaks and as a starter for my curries. Whole Foods sells a great ghee made from organic, free-range cow’s milk. It’s a little pricey, but you can reuse the container to store your other fats. Make sure the ghee you buy comes from pure butter, and butter alone; some brands combine vegetable oil with butter to make their ghee.
Per 3.5 oz:
Those are the basics – the ones most of us are going to be able to have on a regular basis. Animal fat has been unjustly demonized and there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Hopefully, this cleared things up and made it a bit more accessible and understandable.
I’m interested in hearing about other types of rendered animal fat, though. If you have access to rendered moose fatback or emu kidney leaf fat, let us know about it in the comments!