From the beginning of human history until the middle of the last century the word fat had positive connotations. Fat was valuable and useful. The best meat was well marbled and had a good coating of fat, with only the plumpest chicken selected for the pot. Fat was an integral part of our diet, and those that didn’t eat enough were sickly and often died. Eating fat and being a little plump was a sign of prosperity and health; no one wanted to be thin.
Nowadays it seems everyone is on a diet or watching their weight. Fat is no longer seen as valuable, and being plump is a health risk. Fat is no longer admired and worse still, the fat in our food is now inexorably linked to the fat on our bodies.
Our fear of getting fat makes us choose lean meats as we rejected marbled beef, fatty pork, and plump birds, producers responded by breeding leaner animals.
But fat is fundamental to the flavour of our food and essential for cooking it.
Fat is just as indispensable to our health as it is to our cooking. Every cell in our body needs fat, our brain and hormones rely on fat to function, and fat supports our immune system, fights disease, and protects our liver. Fat promotes good skin and healthy hair, and it regulates our digestive system and leaves us feeling sated. Diets low in fat, it turns out, leave people hungry, depressed, and prone to weight gain and illness.
All fats, however, are not created equal. While we have reduced our intake of animal fats, the total amount of fat in our diet has increased. We have replaced animal fats with man-made hydrogenated fats and vegetable oils which aren’t good for us. They’re full of Omega-6 fatty acids (not the good Omega-3s), that cause heart disease, obesity, and all sorts of health problems.
Note: Meat and butter from grass-fed animals contain omega-3, but animals raised on a diet high in grains are full of omega-6 fatty acids.
Fat makes everything we eat taste better, and eating fat is satisfying, so we eat less and our desire to snack is reduced. Enjoying our meals makes us happy and lowers our stress. And, as hard as it is to believe, fat is good for us, too.
Pork fat: The king
With its high proportion of fat to meat, the pig is truly king when it comes to animal fat. The pig is valued as much for its fat as for its meat… or at least it was.
Pork has lost its fat, and with it its flavour.
But the tide is turning for pork fat. The realisation of the dangers associated with trans fats has caused many of us to reconsider the benefits of lard. This trend, combined with cooks demanding pork with more fat and flavour, has led to an interest in heritage breeds such as Berkshire pigs. These pigs naturally put on fat and have a delicious, lightly marbled meat.
However the quest for lean meat is so ingrained in us, that our rosy Berkshire pork covered with a thick layer of fat is often met with resistance. We need to understand that this coat of fat tells us that the animal was raised slowly and that the meat underneath it will be much more flavourful. That fatty coat also means that there will be more fat to render into lard.
Pork fat in all its forms is not only very useful, but it is also good for us. Like all fats, it is a mixture of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. While the exact percentages vary with the pigs diet and the breed of the pig, pork fat is mostly monounsaturated.
Pork fat’s low level of polyunsaturated fatty acids means it doesn’t turn rancid easily and is very stable when heated. This makes pork fat an excellent fat for frying. Not only are foods fried in lard very crisp, but they also absorb less fat than if they were fried in oil. Lard is also great for making pastry, because its crystalline structure makes dough very flaky.
We use lard in nearly all of our cooking – it has a mild, bacony flavour and makes every dish stand out because it lends a rich, depth of flavour that you can’t get with any other cooking oil.
We sell jars of lard from our pastured pigs. Or why not make your own short-cut lard? It’s very easy to make; the bacon that’s been sizzling away has left lard in the bottom of the pan. If you’ve been slow-cooking a pork shoulder for a while, the fat that has rendered in the bottom of the pan is lard. One tip: pour that fat through a very fine strainer to remove any burned, black flecks. Those burned bits can turn your lard. Store it in a tightly sealed container in the fridge or freezer, and it can keep for months.
OK, I’m sold. How do I use it?
You can toss it in a sauté pan instead of butter to fry eggs or sauté veggies. Use it to baste chickens at the end of cooking to get a crackly skin. And you’ve got to try a lard pie crust at least once. Confit whole chickens and ducks, make scratchings (pork crackle), and even add a little umami boom to chocolate desserts.
Fat is good: so let’s cook our chips in lard, spread our bread with butter, make our pastry with real animal fats, grill a well-marbled steak, and enjoy them all, in moderation of course!