While there is nothing wrong with throwing a big hunk of butter or a glug of olive oil in a pan, these two fats are far from perfect when it comes to cooking. Butter burns easily, turning dark and bitter when the heat is too high for too long. To a lesser extent, the same goes for olive oil. Coconut oil is a good alternative since it’s less sensitive to heat, but the coconut flavor is hard to mask and not every dish is enhanced by it. Even so, it’s not uncommon to reach for these three fats first while cooking, mostly out of habit, and overlook the most versatile fat of all: animal. (Yes, yes, I know, butter is technically animal fat.)
Glossy, shimmering animal fat is a near perfect fat to use for sautéing, stir-frying, pan searing, deep frying, baking or any other type of cooking method you can think of. Higher heats and longer cooking times affect animal fat less and contrary to what some believe, animal fat does not make food greasier than other fats. Animal fat gives food a boost, making it crispier, juicer, more flavorful and more succulent.
If you’ve never cooked with animal fat before and aren’t sure how to get started, here is your answer: buy either rendered pork, beef or poultry fat and cook with it however you like. Okay, so there are a few details about buying animal fat that you might want to keep in mind (and you can even render your own), but for the most part, it really is that simple. Saute or stir-fry meat, veggies or eggs. Cover a chicken or turkey with the fat before roasting. Deep fry just about anything. Use animal fat in the same way you would use butter, olive oil or coconut oil when cooking with heat.
Lard (pork fat), tallow (beef fat) and poultry fat (duck, goose or chicken) can be used interchangeably to cook any type of meat or vegetable. If you taste any of these fats, you’ll detect just a whisper of flavor (except bacon fat, which pretty much tastes just like bacon). The subtle flavor of animal fat won’t detract from or mask the natural flavor of whatever you’re cooking. Although some people prefer to only use lard to cook pork or tallow to cook beef, a dish like chicken cooked with lard really is a beautiful thing.
Store the fat in the fridge and scoop out what you need when you’re ready to cook. It will soften quickly at room temperature and melt quickly over heat. Try one of the simple, deeply flavored dishes below and you’ll instantly be reminded of what makes cooking with animal fats so great. Although three different types of fat are used in the three recipes, you can use whichever fat you have on hand – lard, tallow or poultry fat – for any of the recipes. And if you don’t have any animal fat on hand, well, what are you waiting for?
Pork, Red Pepper and Shiitake Mushrooms Stir-fried with Lard
1 pound pork, sliced into thin strips
3 tablespoons tamari
3-4 tablespoons lard
1 tablespoon peeled, chopped ginger
2-4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1-2 red peppers, sliced thinly
Clean and prep the ingredients.
Marinate the pork for 10 minutes in 2 tablespoons tamari.
Heat 1-2 tablespoons of lard in a hot sauté pan or wok. Just as it starts to smoke, add the pork. Cook 1 minute untouched then stir and cook 1-2 minutes more. Remove the pork from the pan. It should be nicely browned.
Add 2 more tablespoons of lard to the hot pan with the ginger and garlic. Stir fry 30 seconds then add mushrooms and peppers. Stir as the veggies cook so the garlic and ginger don’t stick to the pan. After 2-3 minutes add pork back to the pan. Stir fry 1 minute more. Take off heat and stir in 1 tablespoon of tamari.
Chicken and Vegetables Roasted with Duck Fat
1 whole chicken, 4-6 pounds
2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup duck fat
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspooon pepper
6 fresh thyme sprigs
3 garlic cloves, mashed
Half a lemon
A selection of vegetables: 1-2 rutabagas, 2-4 turnips or parsnips, 4-6 carrots, 1 onion
Take the chicken out of the fridge at least one hour before cooking, preferably closer to 1.5 hours. This is an important step that helps the chicken cook evenly throughout.
Preheat oven to 475
Pat the chicken dry. Rub down with 2 tablespoons duck fat. Season with salt and pepper. Fill the chicken cavity with thyme sprigs, garlic and lemon.
Cut the root vegetables into 1/2 inch pieces and the carrots and onion into 1-inch chunks. Cover with 1/4 cup of duck fat, lightly season with salt and pepper or fresh thyme if desired.
Place chicken in a roasting pan surrounded by vegetables.
Roast for 25 minutes at 475 F. Lower temperature to 400 F and roast for 1 hour, or until the internal temperature of the chicken is 160 F. Allow chicken to rest 20 minutes before carving.
Beef and Coconut Curry Seared with Tallow
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 white or yellow onion, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves
1 pound chuck meat, cut into small cubes and lightly salted
3 tablespoons tallow, or more if needed
1 can of coconut milk
In a food processor, blend spices, onion and garlic until a paste forms.
Heat 1 tablespoon tallow in a pot or deep skillet on high. Sear meat, several minutes on each side until brown. Remove from the skillet.
Add 2 tablespoons tallow to the skillet. When hot, add the onion and spice mixture. Fry 3-5 minutes, stirring and adding more fat if the pan seems dry. Add beef back to the skillet. Add the coconut milk.
Put on a lid and simmer 35 minutes on medium-low, stirring occasionally. The sauce should be thick and the meat should be tender. Add salt to taste. In the last 10 minutes, you can also add other veggies – spinach, thinly sliced carrot, small cauliflower florets. Garnish with cilantro.