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Chewing the fat, part II

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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Two weeks ago I talked about some of my favorite liquid cooking oils. This week we're going to meet the bad boys of the kitchen: solid fats. 

As before, I don't want to dwell on the nutritional properties of these ingredients. I'll just point out one thing: Despite their very different appearances at room temperature, some of them are not all that different, chemically, from liquid oils. 

Lard, for example, contains less than 50 percent saturated fat and has nearly as much monounsaturated fat as canola oil. And it tastes infinitely better than canola oil. 

[%image butter float=left caption="It's better with butter." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/glhalverson"]

Butter. Recently I had the opportunity to conduct a butter taste-test with James Miller, who makes Seattle's best croissant at his Ballard bakery, Cafe Besalu. I included regular and high-fat, organic and non, local and otherwise, salted and unsalted butters. The most important quality in butter is freshness; one otherwise promising organic brand we tried tasted like the inside of a refrigerator. 

The winner was Plugrá, the high-fat, unsalted butter from Texas. My only gripe with Plugrá is that it's only sold in one-pound blocks from which it's hard to slice off a tablespoon at a time. Our second-favorite butter was Tillamook, an Oregon brand that I bought at the supermarket on sale for $2.50. 

The moral here? Choose an unsalted butter with high grocery-store turnover, and look skeptically upon imported or otherwise gourmet butters, which may have started out great — weeks ago. To avoid rancidity, store butter in the freezer and defrost it a stick at a time.

[%image pasties float=right width=300 caption="Half lard, half butter is a good combination for flaky crusts for Cornish pasties."] 

For vegetable sautés, I often combine butter with olive oil. Not because it prevents the butter from burning (this is a myth), but because the flavor is great. 

Lard. Yes, I keep a tub of lard in my fridge at all times. Even good organic lard is cheap, and it produces incomparable results in pastry, frying, and sautéing. I use it (half-lard, half-butter) for flaky crusts for Cornish pasties, rustic sour-cherry tarts, and anywhere else I want a foolproof pastry experience.

Lard is an essential ingredient in homemade tamales and flour tortillas. It makes wonderfully crispy fried potatoes. It is the frying medium of choice for doughnuts, and you should slick your pan with it when making a quesadilla. 

Lard has a characteristic porky aroma, but it doesn't make the finished product taste like pork. 

I'm not talking about partially hydrogenated supermarket lard, but the kind you render at home or buy at a Mexican grocery, probably in an unlabeled tub. Anything with a brand name or sold in a box is bad news. 

[%image leaflard float=left width=350 caption="Leaf lard makes superb pastry crust." credit="Photo courtesy Matthew Amster-Burton"]

Rendering lard is easy. Any farmers'-market stand that sells pork will sell you a chunk of pork fat, and all you have to do is process it to a paste in the food processor, put it in a pot in a low oven for three hours or so, then strain out the solids. 

I tend to reach for lard these days when I would once have considered canola oil or shortening, and I am much happier for it, partly because it makes me feel like a bit of an outlaw. 

Recently my wife, Laurie, was making some snickerdoodles and said to me, "We're out of shortening. Do you think I could use lard?" Another palate successfully corrupted! 

The cookies were fabulous. On the other hand, if too many people hop on the lardwagon, I won't be a renegade anymore. 

Duck fat. When chefs profess their love for duck fat, as they often do, the word "potato" is never far behind. I can't deny that duck fat makes for great fried and pan-fried potatoes of all kinds. Try Nigella Lawson's Perfect Roast Potatoes, for example, using duck fat if (as is probable) you don't have any goose fat handy. (Please, please ignore the instruction that "Crisco is a good substitute.") 

[%image potatoes float=right caption="Potatoes are delicious fried in lard." credit="Photo courtesy Matthew Amster-Burton"]

Duck fat has plenty of virtues. It's perfect for making braised cabbage or green beans, or any other vegetable that would go well with duck. Duck fat is also not much different from two other fats sorely lacking in cachet: the aforementioned lard, and chicken fat. 

Which means (as Melissa Clark found recently in a great article in the New York Times) that if you don't eat pork, you can substitute duck fat, and if you don't want to pay a premium for duck fat, you can substitute schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) for either. 

And duck fat isn’t as expensive as it sounds; Whole Foods sells rendered duck fat by the pound for $6 or so. 

Coconut and palm oils. Frankly, I haven't experimented much with these, but I'm curious. (If you have experience with these fats and want to suggest your favorite uses for them, please let me know via the comments section below.) I know coconut oil best as the beautiful layer of oil that appears atop a properly made Thai curry. And it's the notorious force behind the great taste of movie-theater popcorn. Hmm, a batch of popcorn doesn't sound bad at all. Where did I put my coconut oil? 

Some people convert their cars to run on vegetable oil. I'm converting my motorcycle to run on lard. I'll blow by so fast, the only trace will be a puff of smoke and the alluring scent of pork. 


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Okay, fine, I don't have a motorcycle. You'll just have to join me on the lardwagon.

p(bio). [ "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

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