Fat Is Healthy & Beautiful
I consider utilizing the whole hog as not only an economically wise move, but also a spiritual act where I cherish and respect the wholeness of the animal that I have raised for food. A pig, unlike most other farm animals, produces delicious fat in large quantities. The pork industry has been selectively breeding pigs to be leaner and leaner, to create “the other white meat”. But pigs are not made of chicken breast, and really good animal fat is really good for us. It’s good for our bodies and especially our brains which are composed of 60% fat. Our lean and clean modern culture shuns fat, especially animal fats, which creates an atmosphere of negativity around something I consider to be one of the most excellent things on the planet. We can boost our health and happiness by embracing pastured pig fat.
What exactly is fat? A fat is composed of lipids (substances that do not dissolve in water) that are made up of fatty acids. Fatty acids are chains of carbon atoms with pairs of hydrogen atoms attached to them. Each fat is a combination of saturated and unsaturated fat — Saturated fats have all their hydrogen pairs intact and unsaturated fats are missing one or more of their hydrogen pairs. That is why saturated fats stay solid and stable at room temperature and unsaturated fats are liquid. Unsaturated fats are comprised of two types, monunsaturated and polyunsaturated. Monounsaturated fats are missing one pair of hydrogen atoms and polyunsaturated fats are missing two or more pairs. The location of the missing hydrogen atoms is important — Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids are missing their pairs of hydrogen atoms third and sixth from the last of their carbon chains, respectively. These two types of fatty acids are Essential Fatty Acids which are not produced by the body, so they must be eaten. Fat has more then twice the amount of energy that carbohydrates or proteins contain by weight. In other words, fat is pure energy.
Right now most of us eat grain fed pigs with fat that is high in Omega-6 fatty acids. Grain contains a higher ratio of Omega-6 fatty acids to Omega-3 fatty acids. An average American diet is very high in Omega-6 fatty acids — around 16 parts Omega-6 to 1 part of Omega-3s. In the non-industrial society, this ratio can range between 4 to 1, or even 1 to 4 in the case of the Inuit diet, who have traditionally consumed a lot of fish and wild animals for the majority of their traditional diet. Although they eat a whole lot of fat, the Inuit do not suffer the same types of degenerative diseases that plague the western world. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0753332206002435
The hormones constructed from Omega-6 fatty acids increase inflammation, blood clotting, and cell proliferation. The Omega-3 fatty acids produce hormones that decrease those functions. Balancing these two families of hormones can positively affect your health in many ways. http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/QAA400149/balancing-omega-3-and-omega-6.html
According to studies, Omega-3’s appear to prevent irregular heartbeat, reduce fatty plaques inside artery walls, decrease blood clotting, decrease triglycerides, and increase HDL (the good cholesterol). The two most potent Omega-3 fatty acids are DHA and EPA, which are found in fish at a ratio of 50/50 or 60/40 percent. Overall, these Omega-3s seem to improve your chances of living a longer life if you have heart disease. They may also play a role in alleviating depression and reducing violent behavior by producing serotonin and dopamine
Where do we find these Omega 3s other than fish? They are abundant in certain nuts and seeds, like walnuts and flaxseeds, but are also found in animals raised on pasture: “The reason is simple. Omega-3s are formed in the chloroplasts of green leaves and algae. Sixty percent of the fatty acids in grass are omega-3s. When cattle are taken off omega-3 rich grass and shipped to a feedlot to be fattened on omega-3 poor grain, they begin losing their store of this beneficial fat. Each day that an animal spends in the feedlot, its supply of omega-3s is diminished.”
Duckett, S. K., D. G. Wagner, et al. (1993). “Effects of time on feed on beef nutrient composition.” J Anim Sci 71(8): 2079–88
Keeping pigs on pasture can produce a marbling of fat within the muscle (intramuscular fat) that contributes flavor to the meat and is high in the Omega-3s. The EFAs that a pig ingests are basically absorbed unchanged in their digestive system, and are deposited as fat. An active pig oxygenates its muscles which produce the spaces within its muscles for fat to be deposited*. An inactive pig will produce intermuscular, subcutaneous, and organ fat that can be trimmed. Genetics and slower growth rate play a large role in the factors that allow a heritage breed of pig to produce more intramuscular fat then the faster growing newer breeds of pig.
*-The Third Plate, by Dan Barber
These days we are looking at a relatively new understanding of how good fat can actually improve your heath — studies show that choosing to eat fat that is rich in Omega-3s can actually lower our chance of heart disease. Of course this all depends on our genetics and lifestyle, but looking at fat through the lens of new scientific knowledge about animal health and well being can help us foster a better relationship with this incredible source of energy food. So, if there are 2 to 4 times as much Omega-3s in pastured animals, then we have a rich and healthful source of good fat to work with. And to work with wonderful pastured pork is to develop a relationship with the animal and its life.
In Fact respected nutritionist Dr Mercola recommends a diet of 50%-70% of your daily calories coming from healthful fats, and thinks the real culprits of heart disease and obesity lies with carbohydrate and fructose consumption. The USDA recommends less the 10% of your calories coming from fats.
“As I and other nutritional experts have warned, most people actually need upwards of 50–70 percent healthful fats in their diet for optimal health! My personal diet is about 60–70 percent healthy fat, and both Paul Jaminet, PhD., author of Perfect Health Diet, and Dr. Ron Rosedale, M.D., an expert on treating diabetes through diet, agree that the ideal diet includes somewhere between 50–70 percent fat. ”
That concept that increasing our intake of healthy fats is good for us is revolutionary. Personally I have increased my level of fat consumption in accordance with these studies and I feel like it has increased the quality of my health, both of my mind and body.
Fat is beautiful
When a carpenter looks at a board of maple he sees beauty in the grain of the wood, the layers of living and growing. I see a similar beauty in the muscle textures and fat marbling in the carcass of one of my pigs. To learn how to use this bounty fully and to the best of my ability is a goal to work toward every time I sharpen the butcher knife.
Some of the oldest methods of preservation are still the best as they have stood the test of time. Soon after we domesticated pigs in 5000 BC we started to preserve their meat with fat and salt. Even after we invented mechanical refrigeration, we kept preserving pigs in the old ways — the results of these methods can be extremely delicious!
I personally like to use pastured pig lard in all of my cooking. It is a perfect fat for sauteing and roasting, frying, baking cookies and sweets, and making pie crusts extra flaky and light So why isn’t lard the go-to fat in the kitchen? One reason is that our cultural perception has been that saturated fats are inherently unhealthy and can lead to heart disease or higher cholesterol. As explored earlier, new scientific knowledge is questioning that assumption frequently, with one meta-analysis of 21 scientific studies with over 300,000 patients concluded that there was no significant difference in the risk of heart disease between the highest and lowest consumers of saturated fat.
We are living in the aftermath of a wave of fat demonization that spread in the early 1900s. The invention of hydrogenated shortening using seed oils and the marketing brilliance of Crisco only reinforced a populace shocked and disgusted with Upton Sinclairs “the Jungle”, which contained a visceral portrait of the horrific conditions inside the meat processing plants of the day, particularly a scene of men falling into giant vats of pig fat and being rendered into lard. With the perception that this new vegetable shortening was clean, pure, needed no refrigeration and could be used for most cooking, lard took a back seat.
Lard is a term for rendered pig fat. Rendering fat is simply heating animal parts until the fat liquefies and is collected for other uses. Wet rendering uses heat and water to keep the fat from taking on any meat flavors, and dry rendering just uses direct low heat and can include more meat flavors in the resultant fat.
There are three main types of pork fat used in the culinary arts. Fatback is considered the middle quality of pig fat, and it can be abundant in well fed pigs. The Italians take this hard fat located right under the back skin and salt and season it, letting it age for months in a carefully controlled climate, and they call this almost cheese-like product Lardo. Sounds fascinating, but sadly I have not had the opportunity to either taste or try to create it. The other types of fat in the pig are the highest grade — Leaf lard from around the kidneys and inside the loin, and the lowest grade — the caul fat, from around the intestines. These grades are mostly based on flavor, the highest grade having the least amount of pork flavor, although leaf lard also apparently has a crystalline structure which helps create that flaky pastry crust.. At home, I like to render most of the extra fat from butchering in a crockpot. It is a really easy and hands-off approach, and I don’t worry about any porky flavor. I do not bake often and most savory dishes will be enhanced by it. If you are rendering a small amount of fat, go ahead and use a pot on the stove top — if rendering larger amounts use your oven on a low setting and a casserole dish or roasting pan. Rendering works better if the fat is cut up into smaller, similar size pieces. I add a little water to the crock to make sure it doesn’t start to stick to the bottom in the first stages as the fat starts to liquefy. Set the crockpot on Low and come back to some amazing lard after doing about a days worth of chores around the house. You will have lovely smelling house on lard-making day. After straining through a fine mesh and perhaps some cheesecloth, you will have some delicious cracklings left over to salt and snack on. I let the lard cool down until just warm and then pour it into containers. I keep a jar of lard next to the stovetop, using it for all my cooking. Being mostly saturated fat it won’t become rancid for quite a while if kept out of sun and warmth, unlike vegetable and olive oils. You can refrigerate the bulk of your lard in jars, or for longer periods of storage even freeze it in plastic containers.
What else can we do with this amazing substance? One of my favorite ways to use lard is an ancient technique of preserving meat before the invention of mechanical refrigeration called confit, from the French confire, which basically means to prepare, preserve. It is a simple technique, but one that transforms meat, fat, and salt into an incredibly delicious dish. Confit is the low heat cooking cousin to deep fat frying.
To prepare a pork confit, you need to have an adequate amount of lard to cover your meat. Traditionally shoulder roasts and tougher cuts of pork were used as confit technique helps break down the collagen in them. You can dice pork belly or shoulder roast, about 5 pounds of whatever pork you have on hand really, into half inch chunks, and you can either put the meat into a stock pot or a roasting pan with high sides. Add enough lard so that the meat is submerged about a half inch below the liquid lard. You can add traditional spices like thyme, bay leaf, rosemary, salt and pepper, or you can be creative and add other ethnic spices. Play it safe first to enjoy the incredible simple taste of good pork confit. Simmer the meat and fat for 3 to 4 hours, stirring all the while to keep anything from sticking, or keep simmering in the pan in a low oven, say at 225 F, until the meat is absolutely falling apart. Then remove from the heat and let cool a bit. Traditionally then the meat was packed into crocks and covered with the fat — the absence of oxygen and air microbes is what preserves the food, as well as the presence of salt discouraging the growth of bacteria. Nowadays, people usually pack the meat into ramekins and pour about a quarter inch of fat over the top of that and refrigerate until served, at room temperature usually with bread, pickles, fruit preserves, cheese, mustard, as well as other meat preserves. This plate would be a representation of the bounty and absolute deliciousness of food preservation.
Lard can also be used to confit any other meat or vegetable with delicious results. Vegetables will only take an hour or two of cooking, and should be removed from heat when just soft. When you shred confited meat, that is called a rillette. Rillettes are essentially an incredible moist and succulent pulled pork, and can be flavored anyway that you like, for instance with chili powder, and paprika, or the African berbere spice. Flavor it how you like it.
Lard is the best deep frying fat. It makes the most crispy and delicious French Fries or Fried Chicken — Amazingly the food you fry will absorb less lard then other frying oils if the temperature of the lard is between 350 and 375, under the smoking point of lard at 400F, creating the crispiest crust with least amount of fat absorbed into the actual food. Cutting up the French Fries or Chicken is pretty much the hardest part of the whole endeavor. With French Fries, I cut them up as I heat the lard in a deep cast iron pan or Dutch Oven, making sure to have enough oil so that all the fries will be covered, or at least enough to be able to do two batches one after another. It is very helpful to have an accurate thermometer. When the fat is around 325F I gently slide them into the fat an blanch them first for approximately five minutes or until they are just starting to soften — then I take them out and heat the fat up to 370F and again slide them into the fat gently. I fry by sight and sound; a very low pitch and slow color change means the temp is too low, to high of a pitch and quick browning means the temp is to high. It takes around three to five minutes to get them nicely golden. Drain them on a cooling rack or paper towels — sprinkle sea salt on them and eat immediately with a good homemade ketchup.
Fried Chicken is a bit more complicated — but once you’ve done it a couple times, it is actually quite easy. Once the chicken is broken down, I like to cut the breasts and thighs in half with a butcher knife, so all the pieces will be done around the same time. The chickens we raise on our farm average about five to six pounds, so they are much larger then the three pound broilers from the store. They need a minimal amount of flavoring as they are incredibly delicious on their own. You will need two bowls, in one you will mix up a couple free-range eggs (I use duck eggs) and about two cups buttermilk, in the other place two cups of unbleached organic white flour and salt and pepper to taste, generally about 1 tablespoon salt and 2 teaspoons of black pepper. You can also add a bit of granulated garlic, paprika, and any other spices that sound tasty. Place your pieces of chicken into the buttermilk mixture, let it soak for a few minutes as you get your deep skillet about half full of lard and start to heat it up. You can soak your chicken in the buttermilk mixture for a few hours or even overnight if you keep it refrigerated. So heat the fat up to about 360F, and coat a piece of chicken in flour, then back in the buttermilk, and again back in the flour. Basically you are building the delicious crunch layer here — then place the chicken piece gently in the skillet with tongs. Do this with all the pieces and try not to crowd the pan. Keep the fat at about 350F as you fry the chicken pieces. I like to check a piece underneath to make sure it isn’t burning and the proper browning action is happening. Try not to move the chicken very many times, and flip it over after about 6 minutes. It should take about 15–20 minutes to cook, and you should use a meat thermometer to make sure it is at 165F in the center of each piece. Then, drain on a cooling rack and let sit for ten minutes or so to cool off. Let it cool completely before packing away in the fridge if there is any left. Done correctly, deep fat frying is a beautiful thing.
Pure delicious backfat makes the Bratwurst the work of art it is — that and a pretty specific mixture of spices. A lot of bratwurst recipes contain beef , but I prefer the all pork bratwurst recipe I found at the PauperedChef.com, which they called Wisconsin-style bratwurst. The folks at Paupered Chef combed through hundreds of recipes to pinpoint the real basics of what makes a bratwurst delicious. I used their recipe as a guideline and the first time I ate these delicious sausages I was hooked. Using a meat grinder is really the only slightly complicated bit — stuffing the casings is a bit difficult but really more fun then anything else.
- 4 pounds pork, shoulder or other cuts, cut into 1-inch cubes and stored in the freezer for 30 minutes
- 1 pound Pork back fat, chopped and stored in the freezer for 30 minutes
- 2 1/2 tablespoons salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons grated nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon celery seed
- 3 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon ground marjoram
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried ginger
-Adapted From http://www.thepauperedchef.com/2009/06/homemade-wisconsin-style-bratwurst.html
The ginger and nutmeg surprised me but trust me this recipe makes a very vibrant traditional bratwurst. Soak the casings in water. The most important thing is to keep the meat and fat really really cold, otherwise you will create a meat paste, which is not the preferred bratwurst texture. Grind the fat and meat through largest setting — mix salt and spices together, add this to the meat and mix thoroughly. Stuff the sausages, twisting the casings to make individual sausages. At this point you are ready to simmer in beer and onions, or just throw on the grill or in a cast iron frying skillet — I’m always ready to eat them so I don’t bother simmering them in the beer I go directly to grilling bratwurst and drinking the beer myself.
Bacon. An almost mystical presence in the world of cooking. Where fat, meat, salt, and smoke combine to make food perfection — I jumped into bacon curing and smoking early on in my pig raising adventures and my first bacon was very salty, as I was nervous about botulism and food poisoning. Bacon is generally dry-cured, which simply means applying salt to meat. While a piece of meat cures, water is extracted and salt is absorbed into the meat. The longer you cure your meat, the more stable it is and the more salty it becomes. If salt is the primary preservative, the meat will generally become to salty to be palatable after the curing process. Adding smoke and even fat in the case of dry-cured prosciutto, contributes to flavor and preservative qualities of the cured meat. For my first bacon I wanted to taste as much of the pork as possible so I didn’t use any seasonings other that salt and smoke. After I slaughtered our hog in the late fall, I simply took 5 pounds chunks of pork belly and covered them with salt, flipping them every day for a week, and then cold smoking them in a homemade contraption made from an old grill and garbage can. After smoking for a whole day, the bacon can be precooked in a 200F oven for 90 minutes (until internal temperature is 150F), then it is ready to slice and cook, refrigerate and freeze. It is always much easier to slice and work with meat if it is very cold. If it is too salty, you can simply blanch and discard the cooking water. Another option is to cure your pork belly in a container or ziplock bag in the fridge as in this recipe I adapted from the charcuterie master Michael Ruhlman’s website:
- 5 pounds pork belly
- 2 ounces (1/4 cup Morton or Diamond Crystal coarse kosher) salt
- 2 teaspoons pink curing salt #1
- 3 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
- 4 bay leaves, crumbled
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/4 cup brown sugar or honey or maple syrup
- 3 teaspoons granulated garlic
- Some sprigs of fresh thyme (optional)
Adapted From Ruhlman http://blog.ruhlman.com/2010/10/home-cured-bacon-2/
Keep the pork belly in fridge for a week, flipping it occasionally. Otherwise proceed as with the previous method, or as a variation you can hot smoke it until the internal temperature reaches 150F. It is wise to be careful in the use of curing salt, which is sodium nitrite — stick with the recipe and you should be fine. My butcher has developed a all natural nitrite source from celery and cherry juice which is also an option.
The culinary wonders of pastured pigs are endless, and the vehicle of their gastronomic joy is generous amounts of healthy saturated fat. Let us celebrate the life of a happy pig with unabashed enjoyment of pig fat!
Very interesting post, Andrew. Thank you.