Praise The Lard
Saturated fat has a bad reputation. It was demonized for years (maybe even decades) as a contributor (or direct cause) of heart disease, cancer, or brain damage. We already learned about fat and the importance of it in our diet, we also learned that where our fat comes from plays a huge role, and that saturated fat is not the devil we’ve been told it is. In fact, quality animal fat might be the missing puzzle piece in your otherwise healthy and nutritious diet. If you still use highly processed vegetable oils to cook your meals, believe that butter is basically a heart attack, or even if you are looking for a yummy alternative to healthy fats like coconut oil or olive oil, keep on reading!
Fat is one of the macronutrients we need to maintain good health, build new cells, and support organ function. Our brain is mostly fat, marrow in our bones is made up of saturated fats, and fat is also a wonderful source of sustainable energy for our bodies. Fat is actually our primary source of energy, but with time (and under the influence of food manufacturers) we started replacing it with carbohydrates. Your hair, skin, nails, organs, and bones all need a proper dose of high quality fat every day, just like you need air to breath. Our grandparents and great-grand parents used animal fat for cooking all of their lives, but because the food industry came out with all the I-cant-believe-its-not-butter creations, margarines, and other plastic frankenfoods that are cheaper, spread more easily, and taste like nothing you would find in nature, our generation has missed out on the benefits of natural animal fats.
Animal fat is the most natural source of fat in the human diet. Why would we eat certain parts of the animal like lean meat and organs, use mineral rich bones to make a healthy soup, but throw away one of the most nutrient dense cuts? We then go to the store and buy extra cooking fats instead, which is neither logical, nor economical. Consuming the whole animal, nose to tail, is one of the oldest ways of eating. But we also know that fat tissue is where the most toxins are stored in the body. Animals that are fed corn, soy, and wheat tend to have many of the antinutrients and inflammatory compounds stored in their body fat, so consuming lard or butter from these conventionally raised animals is probably not the best idea. If fat from pastured, grass-fed, free range animals is not an option for you, you should consider sticking to healthy plant based oils like cold pressed nut oils, olive oil, and coconut oil, but you should at least explore the options you have instead of turning to a box of Crisco or a bottle of canola oil. Here are some of the healthy animal fats you should try adding to your diet!
Rendering cooking fat from animal fat tissue (or buying fat that has already been rendered) is a cheap, nutritious, and delicious option it cant get better than that! Animal fat is full of nutrient dense saturated fatty acids that are very stable for high temperature cooking and frying. Properly raised animals (grass-fed, pastured, free range, fed a nutritious diet) are nutritional powerhouses and you get much more than protein and bones from them. Butter of course is a wonderful cooking fat, but it is also a dairy product which many people are allergic to, and it requires some mechanical processing to make. Low fat myths made us stay away from fatty cuts of meat, and some of us are still afraid of a good old stick of lard. But you are missing out if you still choose soybean oil over duck fat! Lets take a look at the most delicious animal fat options.
Lard is the fat from pigs. It is white to pale cream in color, soft but solid at room temperature, with the consistency of butter. It is 39% saturated fat. You can buy raw pork fat and render your own lard at home, and the same is true of the other fats mentioned below. Stacy Toth and Matthew McCarry wrote a beautiful cookbook called Beyond Bacon where they share their love for lard in their recipes. You can read an extensive post about lard rendering on their website! I have never made my own lard, but I buy it from reliable sources on a regular basis and it is the most common cooking fat in my kitchen, along with ghee. If you would rather not have a porky smell or taste added to your cooking experience, look for leaf lard which is made from a different cut of fat and is much lighter in color and flavor (its also preferable if you’re making pastry).
Beef fat in its raw form is called suet, the rendered form is called tallow. It is again white to light cream or yellow in color, but at room temperature it is pretty thick and hard to scoop, so you usually have to chop it with sharp knife (a bit more like a block of baking chocolate or cocoa butter). It is 50% saturated fat and it is the most stable oil for high temperature cooking, next to coconut oil. It can have a mild meat flavor, but it usually isn’t very noticeable when cooked with eggs or vegetables (just don’t use it for your coconut flour pancakes). I use beef tallow from a local farm as the main ingredient in my homemade multi-purpose body cream, because it is a wonderful moisturizer and is full of vitamins A, D, E, and K2, which are very nourishing for the skin. It contains CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) which has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, stearic and oleic acid that protect skin from damage and add elasticity and softness, as well as additional skin protecting compounds. I actually have never used tallow for cooking, but some people prefer it over pork lard for various reasons. Whether you just don’t like pork, have religious objections, or are repelled by the idea of lard itself, tallow may be a wonderful option for you. The Paleo Mom shares her take on rendering tallow here, and I render mine using this tutorial.
Duck fat is solid at room temperature and has a creamy white color. It smells amazing, and it adds wonderful flavor (sort of similar to chicken, but richer). In Europe, duck fat was used to cook French fries before it was replaced with trans fats, and some people say duck fat is the Cadillac of animal fat. It is a little more expensive than lard for example, but a little goes a long way. I always keep some duck fat in my fridge, and I prefer it over lard for omelettes or cooked vegetables. Susanne uses it to take her roasted root vegetable dishes to the next level. It is only 33% saturated fat and 49% monounsaturated, so it does not fall into that demonized saturated fat category by definition. Try duck fat and you will never want to go back to Crisco.
Chicken fat is always sold pre-rendered and it is called Schmaltz. It is 45% monounsaturated fat and it is liquid at room temperature. It has a long tradition in Jewish cuisine, has a light flavor similar to duck fat, and tastes wonderful with roasted vegetables, or chicken recipes that require added fat. It intensifies the chicken flavor and adds more vitamins to the meal. A little tip from Susanne’s kitchen: roast a whole chicken in a deep sided dish about the same size as the bird. Salt it well on all sides, and stuff it with half a lemon and a small bunch of fresh oregano or marjoram. This heavenly flavor is infused into your chicken, and you can use the drippings on top of rice or potatoes, or save the drippings and fat to pan fry chicken breast later in the week (it creates gravy-like magic)! Delicious!
All of these animal fats are cheap and delicious, you just have to pick your favorite and then not be afraid to use a generous amount of it during cooking. You can keep them on the counter or store them in the fridge (which I prefer to do in summer months, or even in the freezer for longer storage). Fat doesn’t make you fat (sugar and empty carbohydrates do!), and these healthy fats will not make you sick (unless you have a fat absorption issue or severely compromised digestion in which case you will need to sort that out first).. If you have the opportunity to get raw animal fat from your local farmers, do it! Since most people are still afraid of animal fat, these cuts tend to be under appreciated and very cheap, so take advantage of this, because you know better! Rendering your own fat can be time consuming (and a bit smelly), but the results are worth it. Take a look at this Fat rendering guide that describes two rendering methods in details. Also read about what Chris Kresser has to say about animal fats!
BUTTER (AND GHEE)
Oh butter. I like the saying that butter makes everything better. I agree with this, even though dairy can be problematic for many people. Butter has received so much hate in the recent past, and there is no reason for that because it is one of the best fat sources available. Specifically grass-fed butter is full of important nutrients! It adds a wonderful flavor to cooked eggs, steamed vegetables, or coconut flour pancakes, it smells amazing, and has a little bit of a creamy, nutty taste. Butter is mostly fat (about 82%) and it contains some water, protein, and carbohydrates (the remaining 18%). It is very low in inflammatory Omega-6s, high in saturated fat, and also contains a notable amount of MCT fatty acids (you can read more about why this is important in our Coconut Oil post). Butter is solid, but soft at room temperature and is very stable for high-heat cooking.
But we are not going to eat butter just because it is delicious, right? There must be more to it. And there is. Grass-fed butter is very rich in these particular nutrients: Vitamin K2, CLA, and Butyric Acid. Vitamin K2 is only present in animal products (like bone marrow or eggs). Our body is able to create Vitamin K2 from Vitamin K1 found in vegetables, but the conversion is very inefficient. Cows are able to do this step for us they eat grass rich in Vitamin K1 and use their amazing digestive system to convert it to Vitamin K2 that is then present in the milk (and later, butter). Our own gut flora is also able to make Vitamin K2, but again, the ratio is not very significant and it is simply not enough to cover our needs. Why is Vitamin K2 important? It helps your body to use calcium properly to support bone health (keeping calcium in the bones and out of arteries), it also helps with absorption of other vitamins like A and D (which help to reduce inflammation and balance immunity), and it is associated with lowering the risk of heart disease.
Butyric Acid is a short chain fatty acid that our gut flora is able to produce from indigestible fiber, but many people with gut issues have difficulties with fiber. By eating grass fed butter and providing your body with enough butyric acid in this way, you can actually prevent leaky gut and also support colon health, preventing colon cancer (this doesn’t work if you’re allergic to dairy though). Other sources of butyric acid are parmesan cheese or kombucha, so if you do not do well with any dairy, you might want to try kombucha and focus on feeding some good fiber sources for you gut flora so they can make butyric acid in your body. CLA, conjugated linoleic acid is a compound that can only be found in grass-fed butter (not conventional butter), and this fatty acid helps with obesity by reducing insulin sensitivity and inflammation. It also helps to strengthen bones and teeth, and has antibacterial properties.
Grass-fed butter is typically better tolerated than conventional butter, and even some people who otherwise don’t do well with dairy find they can have a bit of grass-fed butter. But if you are allergic to regular dairy, proceed with caution when introducing grass-fed butter into your diet; you might be one of those people who cant have either. It contains some dairy proteins and also the familiar sugar called lactose, which might be problematic for some people. If you are one of them, don’t worry, there is still an option to consider. Clarified butter (or Ghee, as it is called in Indian cuisine) has most of the dairy proteins and sugars removed, while still keeping all the good, healthy fats intact.
Ghee is 99% fat, and the remaining 1% of residual protein and lactose is usually well tolerated (though there is no guarantee of this, so listen to your body’s feedback). Ghee is pretty expensive to buy, but it is very easy to make at home; all you need is a few sticks of grass-fed butter, a pot, and a little bit of time. How do you do it? Here is a simple recipe to teach you how to make a basic ghee, but you can always make your clarified butter special by adding some spices while heating it, like garlic, herbs, or even spices like cinnamon. Some tips on flavored ghee are found here. Ghee doesn’t need to be refrigerated and it has a pretty long shelf life, even though it probably will not last you that long, simply because it is so delicious. I love ghee for cooking and baking and often eat it with a spoon straight from the jar. Sometimes I just chop and apple, sprinkle it with cinnamon, and pour some melted ghee over it for a very yummy treat.
SOLUTIONS FOR VEGANS
If you are a Vegan or Vegetarian, you likely want to stay away from animal fats, but it doesn’t mean you have to stay away from all healthy fats! Opt for coconut oil it is almost a magical potion and can be used for cooking, baking, or even moisturizing your skin. Olive oil, nut oils, avocado oil, or even cacao butter are all delicious and healthy, even though they are not very suitable for high temperature cooking and might be higher in Omega-6 fatty acids (especially nut oils). Oil blends like the Panaseeda 5 Seed Blend are an organic, non GMO, vegan friendly option, and this blend in particular is delicious as a salad dressing or a bread dip. If you’re looking for a great antibacterial oil, this Golden Flax Seed oil is ideal, and my personal favorite is Black Cumin Oil it is perfect food for the body and the skin, it contains important trace minerals, has histamine lowering properties, and a number of fatty acids we talked about earlier, like stearic, palmitic, oleic, and linoleic.
Even though these oils are not suitable for high temperature cooking, keep them in your pantry as a healthful addition to your diet alongside of your coconut or olive oil. Our cells need fat, no doubt about it. But there is a big difference between healthy and unhealthy fat. The general rule of thumb should be that it if requires a lot of processing, it is most likely not real food and you should stay away from it. Read our Fat series again to learn more about the history of processed oils and trans fat, or grab a copy of Eat The Yolks by Liz Wolfe if you are interested in more details. Next time you go grocery shopping, be sure to add some nourishing, delicious animal fat to your cart! Your body will thank you.