I grew up in the South, where every home cook I admired kept a can of bacon grease in the refrigerator. That grease was used to launch many fine dishes. One friend's mother made biscuits with butter and bacon fat. Needless to say, I was a husky child.
Now, after years in culinary exile, lard is staging a comeback.
Cooking with animal fat — common around the world for centuries — was dealt a near-fatal blow in the early 20th century by Crisco and its anti-lard campaign. Lard was demonized as an unhealthy fat, and cooks took note. Other vegetable oils came along, and lard was all but forgotten.
At a recent dinner party, the topic of cooking fats came up. A quick poll showed olive oil or butter to be the fats of choice for every home cook in attendance. Butter and olive oil are accessible and affordable. Olive oil is healthful, and butter is delicious. However, there is a world of fats out there.
Scientists now have found that the trans fats in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are bad fats, while monounsaturated fats found in lard are good fats — which is not to say lard is a health food. Olive oil has them all beat.
However, between science and the nose-to-tail movement, animal fats are getting another look. Leading the pork-fat charge is Husk restaurant in my hometown of Charleston, S.C. The restaurant not only embraces the tasty qualities of lard but is downright evangelical about it. For example, service at Husk starts with rolls served with "pork butter," an addictive spread of equal parts butter and lard.
It doesn't stop there. Husk has become famous for its cornbread, which uses a scoop of pure lard in the batter. Husk's chef de cuisine Travis Grimes told me they use lard because it's healthier than some alternatives.
"Vegetable shortening is hydrogenated vegetable oils. It's actually not good for you. They're not natural fats," he said. "They are scientific inventions that our bodies aren't meant to process. We should look to what we've done in the past thousands of years, not to the stuff from a lab in the last 50 or 60 years. You'd be better off consuming pork fat, spreading it on your toast in the morning."
While I'm not spreading pork fat on my toast quite yet, I did pause to consider what else is out there. It goes beyond pork fat. That whole chicken in your fridge? Don't throw away the fat. Turn it into schmaltz. Schmaltz is the rendered fat from chicken that, when combined with a little diced onion and strained, is amazing. It looks similar to butter but smells deeply of wonderful roast chicken. Imagine roasting your potatoes with that instead of olive oil.
Same goes for duck fat. If you pan roast duck breast (or goose breast), don't throw away the delicious fat that melts off into the pan. It will provide a flavorful base that will elevate french fries to a level you never imagined. And it freezes well.
I doubt I'll throw out the olive oil and butter, but I may start keeping my own can of bacon grease in the refrigerator.
In the South, everyone has an opinion on cornbread. You either make sweet or you make savory. Personally, I think sweet cornbread tastes too much like cake to be enjoyed with savory dishes, so this recipe from Husk restaurant in Charleston, S.C., is perfect. Executive chef Sean Brock has received national acclaim for this cornbread, but if you've spent any time in a Southern kitchen, you'll understand exactly where he's coming from.
Makes 8 servings
2 cups coarse yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
5 tablespoons fresh lard, melted but not hot (found at butchers or specialty shops)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
Large pinch of salt
Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Place a 10-inch cast-iron skillet inside.
Combine cornmeal, salt, baking soda and baking powder. In another bowl, combine 4 tablespoons of lard, egg and buttermilk.
Combine wet and dry ingredients until smooth batter comes together. Carefully move hot skillet from oven to a burner over high heat. Add remaining tablespoon of lard to the pan and pour in the batter. Swirl the batter around the hot skillet to make sure it's evenly distributed.
Return to oven for about 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cornbread comes out dry.
If you've never had duck-fat fries, you are really missing something wonderful. This recipe follows the "double dip" method of making french fries, meaning, they are cooked twice: once to blanch the fries and again to crisp them up. This will result in fries that are fluffy in the middle and crunchy on the outside. While you could try frying them just once, you risk having a crunchy exterior with a raw potato in the middle. Trust me on this. You will need a candy thermometer to do this right.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
4 medium russet potatoes (I don't bother peeling, just wash them well)
8 cups duck fat (found at butchers or specialty shops)
Cut potatoes into about 1/4-inch sticks for a thick, sturdy fry. As you cut them, put them in a large bowl filled with cool water. This will help wash away the starch from the potatoes and will help create that crisp exterior. Keep changing the water in the bowl until it's no longer cloudy. You can let soak for a couple of hours.
About an hour before frying, remove the fries from the water and dry thoroughly. Let me repeat that: Take time to dry your fries. If you don't, that residual moisture will spit all over you and your kitchen when it hits the hot duck fat.
When you're ready to fry, melt the fat in a large pot or Dutch oven and insert a candy thermometer. Heat the fat over medium-high until fat reaches 325 degrees.
Carefully drop fries into the fat and cook about 10 minutes. Do not put too many fries in the pot. After frying, remove and set aside while you continue frying in batches. The fries will not be a delicious golden brown at this point, but they will be soft and cooked throughout.
Once all fries have been blanched, raise the heat on the duck fat to 375 degrees. This is when the magic happens. Repeat the process of frying them in batches. It should only take a few moments before a beautiful, crispy exterior will form on your fry. Remove from the fat, season with salt immediately, and let rest on kitchen towels or a cooling rack until cool enough to eat. Continue that process with the rest of the fries and serve with ketchup or aioli.
I admit that I had never been introduced to pure schmaltz (from the Yiddish word for animal fat) before writing this piece. Sure, I've tasted chicken fat that's been incorporated into soups and stocks, but pure schmaltz is magical stuff. This recipe is simple and requires patience.
Makes about 1 cup
3 to 4 cups of bits of chicken fat and skin
1/4 cup water
1 medium yellow onion, cut into large dice
Place chicken fat and skin in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add water and let fat render. The water will cook off and leave you with pure fat. When skin and fat begin to caramelize and turn brown, add the diced onion. Continue to cook until pieces are thoroughly browned but not black. This should take 45 minutes to an hour. Strain schmaltz through cheesecloth into a container, and store in the refrigerator until you're ready to use.
You can also save the browned bits — they're quite delicious and add flavorful texture to a number of dishes. Use them anywhere you would use crumbled bacon — atop a salad or soup, for example.
This is a classic way to showcase schmaltz. There are two matzo ball camps — floaters and sinkers. Floaters are light, fluffy clouds of matzo-based dumplings that float in your soup. Sinkers are heavier, denser bombs that hang out near the bottom of your soup bowl. I had never eaten, much less made, matzo balls. Since I had no basis for comparison, I decided to aim for floaters.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
1/4 cup seltzer water
1/4 cup schmaltz, melted
1 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch ground pepper
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup matzo meal
4 tablespoons schmaltz
4 stalks celery, finely diced
4 carrots, peeled and finely diced
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 gallons of chicken stock, preferably homemade
Combine all of the matzo-ball ingredients in a bowl and mix together. Using wet hands, roll into golf ball-sized dumplings. Once formed, let them rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or up to 24 hours.
When ready to make soup, in a large soup pot, heat schmaltz over medium-high heat. Saute vegetables in schmaltz until translucent, add salt and pepper, then add chicken stock. Turn heat to high and let come to a boil, then add matzo balls. When soup returns to boil, drop to medium-low heat and cover. Let matzo balls cook about 30 minutes, giving them a stir every so often.
To serve, ladle the matzo balls into a bowl first, then cover with soup.
Yes, I realize the name is a turnoff. Mayonnaise and cake shouldn't go together, and yet, it's wonderful. Think about it: Oil and eggs are primary ingredients in both mayo and cake, so it's not that much of a stretch. The idea behind this recipe is that the mayonnaise will help you turn out a cake that will stay moist. Trust me on this. It works. I'm the first to admit that I'm not a very good baker, but this simple layer cake was a big hit in my house.
Makes 1 cake
2 tablespoons butter or lard
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups mayonnaise, preferably homemade
1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cups Dutch-process cocoa powder
Medium pinch of salt
1 1/3 cups hot, not boiling water
1 recipe Vanilla Chocolate Chip Buttercream Frosting (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Use butter or lard and 2 tablespoons flour to grease two 9-inch cake pans.
Beat the eggs and sugar on high speed for 10 minutes. Add mayo and vanilla, then beat on low until incorporated. Slowly add flour, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa powder and salt. Continue mixing on low until combined.
Add the hot water and incorporate on low speed. The batter will look like it's too thin. Be patient. Pour into prepared cake pans and bake for about 30 minutes. Check for doneness by inserting toothpick into the middle of the cake. When it comes out clean, your cake is ready.
When done, remove from the oven and allow cakes to cool in pans until you can handle. Carefully dump the cakes onto the cooling rack and let continue to rest until completely cooled.
While the cakes cool, make the frosting.
Vanilla Chocolate Chip Buttercream Frosting
Makes enough for a 2-layer cake
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
8 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup heavy cream or whole milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup mini chocolate chips
In a large mixing bowl, cream butter until very smooth. Begin adding powdered sugar and salt in stages. If you add it all at once, you will end up with a very messy kitchen. Take your time to work it in. Once incorporated, begin adding in the cream. Do this slowly. The goal is to thin the frosting to where you can spread it on the cake. Add vanilla and incorporate. Finally, fold in chocolate chips with a spatula.
When the cakes are cool enough to handle, place one layer on a cake stand. Place a large scoop of frosting on the base layer and carefully distribute over the top of the layer. Don't be stingy. Place the other layer on top of the frosting and gently press down to make sure it stays in place.
Repeat the process of putting a large scoop of frosting on the top layer and carefully distributing it evenly over the top. Once it's frosted on the top, begin the process of frosting the sides.