A fat load of good

Categories: Expert guidance

Sybil Kapoor on how making good use of animal fats can reduce food waste, while lending an unparalleled depth of flavour to your cooking

Image: Regula Ysewijn

Learning to cook with minimum waste takes time, but brings much pleasure. There is a deep sense of satisfaction when you reach the end of the week and find that while trying to empty your fridge, you’ve created some delicious new recipes and saved yourself some money.

However, there is a second stage to minimising food waste, and that is to consider which products get wasted within the food chain itself. This is a relatively modern phenomenon. As Massimo Bottura, the Michelin-starred chef and founder of Food for Soul (a non-profit organisation that fights food waste and feeds those in need), explains: “When I was a child, my family used to kill a pig. My grandmother would say, ‘This pig was part of our family, it gave its life to feed us, so we must value every part of it, down to the last bone, and not waste anything.’”

Such views should be applied to every animal we eat. Imagine how much wastage and devaluation could be avoided if every cook undertook to use just one neglected animal part, be it bones for stock or hearts for stuffing. And if lack of time or squeamishness discourages you, you could always settle for the once common commodity of animal fat.

Creamy, crumbly suet
Think about it: all kidneys are encased in creamy, crumbly suet; ducks and geese release rivers of delicious-tasting fat from under their skin; and it would be a sad pig that didn’t yield plenty of lard or a plump layer of back fat that can be cured into some flavoursome lardo. Yet today, even the dripping from a joint of roast meat is often discarded.

Traditionally, British cooks depended on a wide variety of animal fats in their cooking. Every butcher sold finely grated clarified suet and rendered lard and every household valued their weekly supply of dripping, which at the very least was used as a flavoursome fat to sear stews, roast potatoes and smear onto bread as a tasty snack.

Even the fat from stocks and poached meat was skimmed from its cooking liquor and clarified for later use—an easy process, that keeps the dripping sweet. Simply place the solidified fat in a saucepan, cover with water and boil uncovered for 20 minutes, then strain into a clean bowl and set aside until cold. The fat will rise to the surface and set into a solid block. Any impurities will remain in the water and should be discarded.

Cold-defying puddings
Suet would be added to fluffy parsley dumplings, rubbed into pastry (with self-raising flour) stirred into Christmas mincemeat and mixed into cold-defying steamed puddings such as treacle pudding. Lard was used to fry countless British breakfasts and was rubbed into variations of short crust pastry, water biscuits and irresistible fruit-filled lardy cakes.

But over time, our dietary habits and cooking patterns have changed. As supermarkets spread, local butchers that sold every bit of the animal disappeared from our high streets. Out went the old-fashioned meat fats and in came different oils, margarines and spreads, bringing with them new ideas about how and what we should all eat. In the last 30 years, advice as to what is healthy to eat and what is not has regularly changed. Everyone knows that some fat is essential for good health, but the question is, which fat? It’s now universally agreed that trans fats are bad for you, which predominantly occur in highly processed vegetable oils.

The remaining fats fall into two main categories: saturated fats, which solidify when cold, such as meat fat, coconut oil and butter, and unsaturated fats—both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. These tend to remain liquid, such as olive oil and sunflower oil. Until recently, the official advice has been that you should favour unsaturated fats over saturated fats—another reason for the decline in our consumption of animal fats.

The new watchword
However, the consensus is that we should all cook from scratch, rather than consume highly processed food, eat a balanced diet, and take plenty of exercise. Moderation is the new watchword—and this liberates you to enjoy myriad gorgeous recipes. Paper thin slices of lardo or pancetta can be curled over a small starter of warm white beans and piquant dressed chicory; parsnip and apple rostis can be fried in duck fat, and steamed beef and mushroom pudding eaten with spring greens.

There is no doubt that just a small amount of animal fat will introduce a wonderful depth of flavour to dishes—compare the taste of potatoes sautéed in goose fat to those cooked in vegetable oil. For inspiration on how to use animal fat, dip into old British or French cookbooks. According to Dorothy Hartley in Food in England (1954), for example, you should match your dripping to your meat. Thus, the pastry for a lamb pasty should be made with clarified lamb dripping and the crust of a pork pie should be made with clarified pork dripping or lard.

Of course, confits of duck and goose are simmered and preserved in their own fat, as are pork rillettes (potted pork), but according to Elizabeth David in French Provincial Cooking (1960), rabbit and duck rillettes are also cooked in pork fat, presumably due to its abundance.

Reducing food wastage
As part of reducing your food wastage, try rendering your own animal fat, including bacon or corn-fed chicken: remove any skin and gristle, then cut the fat into small cubes and set over a low heat in a heavy-bottomed pan until almost all the fat has dissolved, then pour through a muslin-lined sieve and once cold, store in the fridge.

Take heed of Dorothy Hartley’s advice and match the flavour of your fat to your dish, especially if you’re using it to baste grilled or roasted meat. Remember that bacon fat will also add salt, but it is delicious on roast game and chicken, while lamb fat deepens the taste of spiced lamb kebabs.

Each time you use a vegetable oil or butter, consider whether the recipe might be improved with an animal fat instead. For example, spiced red cabbage tastes far richer if cooked with a little duck fat, and both black bean and lentil soup taste better when the vegetables are fried in bacon fat. Scottish oatcakes taste wonderful with a tiny addition of lard, and veal forcemeat balls become meltingly tender with a little suet. You will be amazed at how a return to old-fashioned values will change your cooking. The small readjustment of using some animal fat will transform the taste of your food.