Animal fats like lard, tallow, and poultry fats were traditionally the thrifty and delicious cornerstones of many cuisines. Now, they’re making a comeback in the kitchen. Here’s how to get reacquainted.
Where to Get It
With growing popularity comes growing accessibility for home cooks: High-quality, minimally processed rendered animal fats can now be widely found at many grocery stores, from producers like Fatworks and Epic Provisions. D’Artagnan’s duck fat, a reliable, albeit expensive chef favorite, is available online and in specialty food stores. Unrendered lard and beef fat, meanwhile, can often be sourced from your local butcher.
Chances are, though, you already have plenty of animal fats at your disposal; unlocking their potential requires only simple changes to your existing cooking habits, setting up your own refrigerator jar of drippings from cooking meats, chilling stocks and soups to harvest the hardened layer of fat that forms at the surface, and saving bits of skin and fat you’d normally trim off and discard. Andrea Chesman, author of the recently released “The Fat Kitchen,” keeps a supply of trimmed chicken fat in the freezer; once it accumulates to around a pound, she renders it into schmaltz.
To be a step more deliberate, Jeremy Kittelson, culinary director of the Edible Beats restaurant group in Denver, encourages springing for the whole chicken on your next grocery trip, rather than your usual broken-down parts of choice. It’s an accessible lesson in whole-animal cookery: between fat rendered from the skin, the cracklings you get as a byproduct, the different cuts of meat, and stock coaxed from the bones, “you get five different preparations,” at least, he said. “I know not every home cook’s going to want to do that, but it’s nice to open people’s eyes to what they can do with a whole animal.”
Whether you’re rendering from accumulated scraps or taking on hunks of lard or beef fat, Chesman’s cookbook offers a comprehensive guide to the process: dicing it into small pieces, melting it over low to medium heat with a splash of water, and straining the final product. The trick, she writes, is to not let the melted fat sit with the bits of browned solids for too long, which will make it meaty in taste; you’re after a neutral, all-purpose product.
Also important is your source: always opt for pasture-raised animals, she insists, as the fat from industrial-farmed animals, raised in poor environments and raised on antibiotics, tastes different and contains fewer anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids to boot.
How to Use It
Once you’ve stocked up, “it’s boundless what you can do with animal fats,” Kittelson said.
Cooking meats in their own fat is an easy-to-rationalize trick to amp up richness and flavor—think duck confit, roast chicken basted with schmaltz, steak seared in sizzling tallow. Kittelson also recommends resting meat in flavored fat: cook it to doneness just a step below your liking, then let it rest in warm duck fat, for instance, infused with aromatics like thyme and garlic, to trap in the juices and add another layer of flavor.
Poultry fats also work magic on roasted vegetables, especially root varieties, Chesman advises, and for an indulgent snack, popcorn popped in duck fat is “a revelation.” No butter required.
Animal fats are also excellent for pan- and deep-frying, due to their high smoke points, and result in dishes, from home fries to fried chicken, that are “remarkably not greasy.” Chesman explains: The fats, which are solid at room temperature, immediately harden into satisfyingly crisp shells, rather than soaking back into the food or pooling wet and heavy on its surface.
At Atlanta chef and restauranteur Linton Hopkins’ restaurants, animal fats form the basis of incredible warm vinaigrettes. Dress greens with one made from chicken fat and red wine vinegar, or combine pork fat, pork stock, and sherry vinegar to drizzle over sliced tomatoes. Or, he suggests, simply mix the melted fats with herbs and spices—bay leaf, coriander, mustard seed—to use as a flavoring oil to finish any dish, from a cut of meat to plain rice.
In the end, “the key is how simple it is,” Hopkins said. “It is a simple thing to incorporate these fats,” gradually and naturally building them into your cooking, without needing set recipes.
Chesman—despite offering a wealth of tantalizing recipes in her book—agrees: “Just start cooking with it. You start almost every recipe on the stove top by sautéing aromatics in vegetable oil, or olive oil. Instead of that, just use animal fat.”