How to cook with fat

I roasted a shoulder of pork the other night that was so damn good I haven't stopped thinking about it. The shoulder was from a Large Black pig from the Hochkirch biodynamic farm in Henty in western Victoria. The meat was a dark rosy colour and the flavour simply delicious. But the thing that was so special about this pork was the quantity of soft, golden fat that lay underneath the blistered, crunchy crackle, and as I cut slices of meat, liquid fat oozed onto the chopping board. This was no everyday pork fat; it was very soft and dissolved into molten, sweet pork essence in my mouth.

For decades, we've been told that fat is bad for us, which is absolutely true if it's eaten in excess. Somewhere along the way, however, we've lost sight of the fact that a little bit of natural, healthy animal fat is actually very good for you. It contains many essential vitamins and happens to be an excellent source of fuel. It's also a magical ingredient in the kitchen.
 
Fat gives a dish flavour and an unctuous quality. Think about the taste of a lean piece of yearling beef compared with that of a well-marbled piece of steak - fat is the key. It also helps starches reach that caramelised point that gives so much colour and depth to a dish.

Ducks have a particularly generous amount of fat. I always have a tub of duck fat in my freezer for when I want to roast potatoes, because it makes the most wonderful potatoes you'll ever eat. That is unless you can get your hands on a jar of goose fat, which is even better. They both lend a flavour and crispness to the potatoes that oil just can't match. I like to boil the potatoes first, then finish them in the oven with salt flakes, fat and rosemary.

Another great use for duck fat is to make rillettes, which I love to eat on toast with cornichons. Rillettes last for several weeks in the fridge if they're well covered in fat, so they make a perfect appetiser to have on hand for when guests drop in unexpectedly.

As soon as the weather cools, my kitchen at the Enoteca in Fitzroy is busy seasoning duck legs with salt, quatre-épices and thyme before slowly cooking them immersed in duck fat. Confit duck is a great way to enjoy the leg, because it keeps the meat juicy and tender while it cooks until the meat falls from the bone.

I also like cooking with suet, the creamy pure fat that surrounds the kidneys in beef. You can use it to deep-fry chips, or to make pastry, dumplings and plum puddings. When winter really sets in I like to make a steak and onion pudding using suet pastry: I recall a lunch with friends where we ate this delicious pudding - we went away feeling warm and fortified. Suet makes a durable and forgiving pastry, and takes on a surprisingly light and delicate texture once cooked. Better butchers stock suet (usually cleaned, minced and then frozen, which is the easiest way to handle it), but you often need to order it in advance.

And then there is the king of fat: pork. Lardo may not sound very enticing but if you've ever been in Colonnata in Italy, where wafer-thin slices of this cured pork fat are served on bread, you will know how special it can be. I'm a big fan of cooking with pancetta, kaiserfleisch, speck and innumerable other types of cured pork. My Italian butcher, Leo Donati, makes a fine guanciale, the cured jowl a must if you want to make authentic spaghetti carbonara.

If we look at what supermarkets are selling, it becomes pretty clear that we're paranoid about fat. Fat has either been grown out, thinned out or replaced with something else (often highly processed). But the thing about fat is that it's natural (healthy animals produce healthy fat, which is better for us than artificial trans-fats), it makes better use of the whole animal and most importantly it adds flavour and succulence to food.

As a child, I could never understand why my mother liked to eat bread spread with schmaltz - pure white fat with crunchy brown bits. She would buy it in a plastic tub from her favourite European delicatessen. I thought it was disgusting. But when I carved up the leftover meat from my shoulder of Large Black pork, which was still sitting in the roasting pan the following day, the thing that was most delicious was the creamy white fat that had congealed at the bottom of the pan along with all the browned juices and salt from the crackle. Essentially schmaltz. I had some on crusty bread. Good thinking, Mum.


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