What I’m Reading: Fat: An Appreciation of A Misunderstood Ingredient

What I’m Reading: Fat: An Appreciation of A Misunderstood Ingredient

Ok so I love fat and would have a hard time dreaming up a more attractive book cover than this one. Opening it up and having a read did not disappoint. It really is a great book.

It’s divided up in to four sections: butter, pork fat, poultry fat, and beef and lamb fat. A detailed culinary discussion of each is complemented by excellent recipes. Did you know goose fat has the highest percentage of monounsaturated fat of the major animal fats? It’s in there along with the composition of the other types of animal fats. She sets the record straight on suet vs. tallow vs. lard, with guides on how to use each. I’m never going to look at my meat drippings the same way (a good thing).

I was fortunate enough to have the chance to ask Jennifer some questions and have posted her answers below:

Greg: Your book seems to be getting quite a bit of mainstream media attention despite the obviously taboo subject (see: cover). Besides being a great book, what do you attribute this to? Is it that other writers such as Michael Pollean have laid some groundwork for people to re-evaluate their low-fat ideals, that people are frustrated with conventional dietary wisdom not working for them personally, or are people just intrigued by your ideas because they intuitively know that fat is flavor (and want more of it!)?

Jennifer: I think the title gets people’s attention and then they can’t believe that someone would dare to sing the praises of animal fat. I am not the first to suggest we think again about animal fat. Weston A Price Foundation has long supported animal fats and warned of the dangers of vegetable oils, notably Mary Enig and Sally Fallon. Ms Fallon also has a very popular cookbook >Nourishing Traditions. Food has become very political with writers Nina Planck and Michael Pollan challenging people’s relationship to their food.

Chefs and people who cook know the importance of fat to the flavour of their food. That is what primarily interests me about animal fat – is its flavour.

Greg: Regarding cooking with olive oil: I’ve heard considerable disagreement between some who argue olive oil is unsaturated enough that it really shouldn’t be heated versus advocates who say this isn’t true- it’s smoke point is quite high and its vitamin E content prevents oxidation. Where do you weigh in on this one?

Jennifer: My book deals with animal fat not olive oil. I suggest that anyone who is interested in olive oil read Mark Kurlansky’s article on the subject in this November’s Bon Appetit magazine.

Greg: Someone like myself might read your book, agree with you in whole, and want to implement more animal fats in my cooking. But a tight budget might discourage them given that they feel if the animal products they are buying aren’t raised small scale or grass-fed, it won’t be as healthy. Can you offer any insights into how one might prioritize fat purchases given your knowledge of conventional sources? For example, would you spend the extra money on quality butter, pork fat, or beef fat? And are there some cuts of meat that you feel are significantly undervalued for what they offer? (ie. beef shoulder, organ meats, etc.?)

Jennifer: It is important both morally and for your health to buy good quality, naturally raised meat and fat. In North America today, we spend less on our food than any other time in history. We should give a higher priority to food in our budget.

There are lots of ways to get good animal fat cheaply. Make friends with your butcher or supplier, they often have to trim the fat from their meat to make it easier to sell to a fat phobic clientele, so they often give away or sell the trimmed fat very cheaply. You should always save and clarify the fat skimmed from stocks and braises. Strain and reuse the fat from roasted meats. Which fat you choose is a matter of taste. If you have no religious taboos, pork fat is the most versatile and useful.

Greg: You explain that animal fats were a staple part of your family’s diet growing up in suburban Australia. Quite different than the average suburban experience of the latest generation in North America. There are many reasons this is so but it seems to have led us to a system of factory livestock farms. Are animals raised to higher standards in other regions internationally? Commonplace grass-fed lamb in New Zealand or beef in Argentina makes it sound like we’re missing out. Is it that we just aren’t willing to spend the extra money or is the consumer not aware of what goes in to meat production?

Jennifer: Animals are raised to different standards all around the world. Meat is very cheap in North America and there is a reason for that ‘ factory farming. Michael Pollan has made it clear that while factory meat may be cheap we are paying for it in other ways, pollution, disease, and so on. Quality raised animals are available everywhere, just in some places it is easer to obtain them. We should all remember that ruminants were designed to eat grass ‘ there is a reason a cow has four stomachs. If we are going to eat animals we should raise them well and give them a good life. Read what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has to say in his River Cottage Meat Book. I believe the quality of the animal’s life is reflected in the quality and taste of its meat. For example I buy lamb from Baa Sheep in the St Lawrence market. I know how much Elizabeth cares for her animals, that is why her lamb tastes so good.

Greg: I’m heading to Australia this winter (to visit family), can I expect greater availability of tallow/lard or has it largely disappeared like here in North America?

Jennifer: My experience of animal fat is probably more a question of age than place. Tallow is not lard and is not readily available anywhere to my knowledge except Belgium and even there ossewit is becoming rare. Lard has not disappeared, it is available from good butchers and is very simple to make yourself. The answer is get out of the supermarket.

Greg: You’re a well-renowned chef that knows what it’s like “on the inside” of fine cuisine, locally here in Toronto, and internationally where you have worked in London and Paris. Do you think traditional knowledge of how to use animal fats is a lost art among many top chefs, or is it an affliction mostly affecting non-professionals. For example, in the book you touch on how olive oil is great, but perhaps a bit over-relied on by some. And even with chefs featured in the media (ie. Food Network) they seem to completely stay away from animal fats in favor of olive or vegetable oils.

Jennifer: All good chefs know the power of butter to add and carry flavour in a dish as well as deliver great mouth feel. I am afraid in chef schools now, with the paranoia about animal fat, they are not being taught about them or how to render and use them. It is easier, quicker, and cheaper to reach for the vegetable oil or worse a hydrogenated commercial fat. People believe it the fat is liquid at room temperature it is better for you. Not true.

Polyunsaturated fats are very fragile and break down quickly when exposed to light and heat.
In my book I point out there is a greater choice of olive oil than there is butter. I think this is a shame. I do not understand why so many restaurants serving with cuisines not even remotely near the Mediterranean serve only olive oil on the table it’s an affectation. Bring back good butter and what about some flavoured pork fat.

Looks like butter can carry a tune too

Greg: I’ve had a heck of a time finding palm oil in Toronto grocers or health food stores. Do you think palm oil and coconut oil have their place in high-heat applications or is tallow/lard just superior for almost anything you might need these for?

Jennifer: I do not use palm and coconut oil. I deep-fry in lard because it is the easiest for me to obtain and sometimes in beef fat when I can get it.

Greg: For our Toronto readers, do you have any hot tips on grocers, restaurants, or shops that might be flying under the radar but offer some hidden gems that fit in to some of the recipes in your book?

Jennifer: I think Torontonians who like to cook are well aware of where to get quality meat and ingredients. The number of good butchers has increased in recently, as has the number of smaller suppliers. The best news is the growing local market system that is putting small suppliers and the consumer together.

Greg: Thanksgiving is right around the corner. While you say pork fat is king in terms of flavor, what bird is king? (what bird will you be serving up this thanksgiving)

Jennifer: Pork is not the king in terms of flavour, pork provides many different fats which are neutral in flavour making it a very flexible and useful fat in the kitchen, that is why I call it “the king”.

I am in Paris for Thanksgiving. I always come at this time just so I can avoid cooking a turkey. I didn’t grow up with Thanksgiving and have never embraced it. My favourite bird to roast for special occasions is a goose. Not only is it delicious and rich, it yields large amounts of great fat that you can use for cooking.

Greg: City governments, such as New York City, are introducing measures to force restaurants to list all ingredients in their menu items. Good idea? If this were applied to higher end restaurants would diners be put off by the use of butter and/or animal fats without the re-education necessary in this regard?

Jennifer: Why do you want to know all the ingredients in a dish? Already in some restaurants it takes you longer to read an item on the menu than to eat it.

I go out to enjoy myself and experience the chef’s cooking. If I am that interested in a particular dish I can ask about it. As for the use of animal fats and butter ‘ the informed diner would be happy to know that the chef is using them rather than some cheap vegetable oil.

Thanks to Jennifer for fielding some questions. Check out her blog or a recent interview with salon.com for more.

About Scott

Scott Kustes loves to cook and loves to eat. He founded Naked Food Cooking to help you get maximum enjoyment out of the meals that you eat. To find out more about how he has rebelled against the fast food culture and counting calories or carbs, join the Real Food Revolution.