Photo © Becky Luigart-Stayner, Sunny House Studio, courtesy of Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery
Fat is what matters in your food. That's the key thing to remember about fat. The lean mean tastes like whatever; you couldn't tell a thin slice of chicken breast from a carpaccio if your life depended on it. No, “The fat is the meat, and the meat is the vegetable,” as the saying goes, and this is especially true of real fat, the kind that comes from animals.
I should clarify here—so to speak—that I am not talking about the revolting white fat that sits congealing on the plate when they slice open the prime rib. No, I mean hot fat, crispy fat and most of all liquid fat, the kind you can roast or sauté things in. Most herbs and spices, as volatile organic compounds, are fat-soluble, so it's not hard to give the fat you use deep flavor—deeper than you ever get by just seasoning the food. I use Aleppo pepper, rosemary, chiles, sage and whatever else I can think of to put into it.
But are all fats created equal? I don't think they are. I think there is an eternal hierarchy of Seven Great Greases, as I have come to think of them. They are as follows.
The king of all fats. An indispensable element in nearly every kind of French cooking and everything that comes out of it: “Butter! Give me butter! Always butter!” was the slogan of the founding father of modern French cooking, Fernand Point. Of course, everyone before him said it too. Nothing tastes better than butter, thanks to milk solids that add complexity, depth and opulence to what is already the fountain and essence of richness.
2. Olive Oil
What butter is to French cooking, olive oil is to Italian. At its best, olive oil is so good you can drink it straight up, or just pour on top of food before you eat it. Moreover, unlike butter, olives carry with them the distinct terroir of their country of origin—that is, if it's actually from where the label says, which it so often isn't. (That's one reason I tend to use the best California olive oils, which are now world class.) That aside, the stuff has an astonishing range of flavor: from the hot, grassy finish of late-harvest Tuscan, to the buttery nuttiness of Umbrian oil, to the punchiness of the really fruity stuff, like Portuguese Cabeço das Nogueiras.
These two fats are so necessary and so universal that they are in a class by themselves. I apologize to all of the animal fats below, starting with lard.
Within the circumscribed (but delicious) world of animal fats, lard occupies a special place. It's like the butter of animal fats. Nothing else is so omnipresent and invisible in great food as pork fat; it coats, soothes and relieves, providing a body and a luxury unobtainable elsewhere. I won't even get into bacon fat, ham fat, fatback and the rest; a pure, clean lard, skillfully applied, can cover a multitude of sins. This doesn't even touch on lard's irreplaceable use as the basis for pies and pastries and piadinas and meat patties, all confections that would be unthinkable without melted-down pigs.
I'll be honest. Schmaltz is this high only because I grew up consuming great gobs of it, and have a deep sentimental attachment. That said, it too is an almost magical agent. It does everything for Jews that pork fat does for gentiles; and unlike lard and butter, both of which congeal and solidify at room temperature, schmaltz, as gold as a Krugerrand, pours clean and clear at the dinner table. There can be no chicken soup without the “gold coins” that float on top; no chopped liver, no true potato latkes or kugels—essentially the whole of Jewish food. And, lest it seem that you can file it away under Judaica, consider this: There can be no chicken gravy, no chicken dumplings, no fried chicken without a goodly amount of the stuff dissolved into it.
5. Rendered Beef Kidney Suet
Never heard of this one? Welcome to the club. Rendered beef kidney suet has traditionally been considered a secret and infallible elixir, an invisible, flavorless fat that holds within its ivory body the very essence of beef. Age it and a quick swipe can make commodity meat straight out of the Cryovac taste as if it had spent a month in the box. Add a little to any hot pot, from pot-au-feu to sukiyaki, and the thing is twice as good. Truly well-marbled meat is rarely easy to find, and always expensive; a little of this stuff supplies nature's defect, and provides the most unskilled chef with a shortcut to greatness.
6. Lamb Fat
Sometimes people ask me what my favorite meat is. (Actually, I ask them to ask me.) As soon as the question begins, I interrupt them with these magic words: lamb fat. I can't think of a single item on this list that I truly look forward to eating on its own. When salty and sizzling and brown, lamb fat has a piquant gaminess all its own. And when you add it to some roasted potatoes or hash browns, watch out! It's pure nitro. Lamb fat is one of the only reasons we can enjoy lean meats that have been frozen solid and flown halfway around the world; it's one of the only reasons we can enjoy lamb shanks, a cut which is—in every other animal—so bad that we don't even let it into soup. Lamb fat is everything. (For me; otherwise it would be higher on the list.)
7. Duck Fat
Gourmands among Eatocracy readers may be surprised to find duck fat so low in the hierarchy of grease. After all, along with goose fat, this is the soul of so many great things: cassoulet, duck fat french fries, rillettes, and of course, any number of applications, like pie, that a person who shuns fat might require. All that said, duck fat is hard to get, and in nearly all cases can be replaced with schmaltz.
I realize these rankings are slightly subjective, but they are to make a point, that being that not all fats are created equal, but that all of them are better than vegetable oil. If a single reader raises his or her cholesterol from this list—and with it, their happiness—I will have done my duty.