Back when I first started this blog, I learned a few things right away about historical cooking. First, some old recipes are very similar to their modern counterparts (like pie). Second, animal fat is wonderful. From salt pork to lard, it’s all delicious.
Lard may have fallen out of favor with the onset of fat-free food, but used sparingly, it can make all the difference in a recipe. It gives pastry dough that beautiful flaky texture, and it adds depth to dishes when used to grease pans before cooking or baking. Historical cooks knew this well, since they didn’t have margarine or canola oil at hand (though butter was a delicious alternative). Today, it turns out there’s a small but thriving population of cooks who use (and talk about) animal fat regularly, including those paleo enthusiasts who only eat what our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have eaten. (We’re talking waaay back when.)
You can substitute butter for animal fat in most historical recipes, but if you’d like to see what all the fuss is about, you’ll need to prepare the fat. Alas, this was a hard-learned lesson for me, one that explains why I had so much trouble making those delicious apple turnovers a few years ago. But you, ah! dear reader, you can benefit from my experience.
First, you need to find out what kind of animal fat you’re dealing with. In the United States, you’ll most likely wind up with one of two kinds:
- Suet, or raw beef or lamb fat
- Lard, or pig fat (can be rendered or not)
If you are lucky enough to wind up with rendered lard, your job is done! You can proceed directly to your favorite recipe. If you have suet or unrendered lard, you have a little more work to do.
Rendering fat refers to processing “waste” animal products, like the fat around kidneys (suet), into an edible form. If you look at raw suet, you’ll see why: it’s stringy and piece-y, and hard to work with. You need to cook it and remove the sinews in order to use it. (Whereas I just worked in bits of raw suet to the turnovers…a difficult enterprise.) Here’s what to do:
1. Chop the suet or lard into small dice, removing as many sinews and tissues as possible.
2. Place a heavy Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Pour in enough water to cover the bottom of the pot, and place the diced fat in the pot.
3. Heat, stirring occasionally, until the fat has completely dissolved into something that looks like oil and there are little browned bits floating around in it. Time varies wildly; it took me about an hour and a half to render 1/4 lb of lamb suet, but that’s also because I had to start over.
4. Strain through a cheesecloth to remove all the browned bits.
5. Store in a jar or other container and let harden, then refrigerate indefinitely.
Then try it out in your favorite recipe and see what you think. It’s different! Do any of you cook with animal fat? What do you like about it?