Fat is perhaps the main source of flavor [sic] in meat.
-Professional Cooking for Canadian Chefs, Sixth Edition
Nothing in particular inspired this post, but it could have very easily been a piece of low-fat cheese, or the pastry icing at a health bakery, or maybe just a dry pork chop. I want to write a bit about the judicious use of fat to make eating more pleasurable.
Fat content in specific cuts of meat. The most common cut of pork in the supermarket is the boneless loin centre chop. This steak is the leanest part of a very lean muscle. It also happens to be the toughest, driest, and least flavourful cut of pork. This is not a coincidence. The fat marbled throughout a piece of meat gives flavour, moist mouthfeel, and tenderness, as the fat separates bundles of protein. The sirloin steak, from a section of the loin closer to the hind legs of the pig, while not as uniform or lean as the centre steak, is more flavourful, juicy, and tender, largely because it has more fat marbled throughout its mass.
The same comparison can be made between beef sirloin steaks and porterhouse or t-bone steaks, or white and dark meat on poultry.
The removal of fat from supermarket cuts of meat is health-driven, but it is part of a larger trend that distances us from the origin of our food, as well as several of the chief pleasures in consuming it. Think of the boneless, skinless chicken breast. Bones are flavourful, and crispy skin gives textural contrast to succulent meat. If the rarity of fatty cuts is health-driven, what’s the excuse for removing bones and skin? It’s like a weird control-tactic from Brave New World: take away all reminders of mortality so we are more content and docile.
Cooking with rendered fat. When searing meat in a pan we most often turn to neutral oils with high smoke points, like canola and grapeseed. If we really want to make our dish flavourful, why not sear our meat in its corresponding fat? Start a beef stew by searing chuck in tallow. Sear and baste a pork chop in lard.
Rendered animal fats can elevate non-meat dishes, too. Potatoes benefit immeasurably from the added depth of flavour. Duck fat is a common choice in France. Interestingly, McDonald’s used to cook their fries in pure beef fat, before “the public’s concern about cholesterol forced them to change to pure (though dangerously partially hydrogenated) vegetable oil.”1
Try pie dough with lard instead of butter, especially if you’re making tourtiere.
If you’re wondering how to obtain rendered fat, here are some ideas:
- The simplest way is to ask your butcher for scraps, then render them yourself. It sounds like an ordeal, but it’s easy. In fact, I have a post about rendering pork fat into lard, and one about rendering duck and goose fat.
- You can also save scraps yourself. Buy larger cuts of meat that you have to trim yourself, then save the fatty scraps in the freezer until you have enough to render. Having raw (that is, un-rendered) fat in your kitchen also opens up the world of sausages, pâtés, and traditional mincemeat pies.
- Start making stocks at home. Buy whole poultry instead of just breasts and save the carcasses in the freezer until you have enough to fill a large stock pot. The gently simmering stock renders the fat out of the meat trim. That fat rises to the top. When you cool your stock, the fat will solidify and is easily removed in one solid mass. The amount of fat you are left with depends on how thoroughly the carcasses have been picked over and (obviously) the amount of stock you are making.
Cooking with craft foods that release fat. The most common example is bacon. Countless classical French recipes begin by cooking bacon, then searing other meats and sweating vegetables in the rendered bacon fat. Most notable are braised dishes like boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, to which the bacon is later reintroduced. My great aunt used to save bacon fat to fry bread for breakfast.
Sausage works well too, but free-form sausage is better than cased sausage. The key to preparing quality cased sausages, like bratwurst, is to keep the casing in tact so that no fat is lost. This is done firstly by not scoring or puncturing the skin, and secondly by cooking on medium-low heat to prevent rupture.
Free-form sausage, on the other hand, is usually cooked and then added to a more complicated dish. The best example is Mexican-style chorizo, which is a spicy, fresh sausage. No casing means that more fat ends up in the pan, and the fat leached by chorizo is almost as valuable as the meat itself. It is bright red, and infused with paprika and chile. Try cooking some free-form chorizo, then remove the meat form the pan, leaving the fat. Fry some eggs in that fat and add the meat back (at left). Chorizo also works wonders on rice dishes. Cook chorizo with some onions. Add raw rice and coat it with the rendered fat. Add chicken stock, bring to a simmer, then cover and place in the oven until the rice is cooked. The pilaf will come out stained with the spice and pork-flavour of the chorizo.
Italian-style sausages, usually flavoured with pepper and fennel, work well in this way, too. They are sold in casings, but you can squeeze the meat out and use it free-form.
Cheese is another example that was recently brought to my attention. Cheese is not usually a base flavour like bacon, but when a meal is starting with seared cheese, maybe a saganaki meze, don’t waste that cheese fat. You could cook your keftedhes in the same pan, or at least fry some bread in it.
That about does it for my rant. I’ll return to a (slightly) less self-righteous tone next post.
1. Steingarten, Jeffrey. Fries, from The Man Who Ate Everything. ©1997 Vintage Books, New York. Page 415.