A nose-to-tail approach to cooking has fat back on the menu
by Jodi Helmer
The sourdough bread, duck fat cauliflower, gnocchi, bone steak and duck leg confit served at Cockscomb in San Francisco and Jackrabbit in Portland, Oregon, all contain the same essential ingredient: Fat.
Chef Chris Cosentino, co-owner of both hotspots, believes that natural animal fats add depth of flavor to dishes; the ingredients also honor longstanding culinary traditions.
“We’ve been cooking with fat for generations,” he says.
Now that the low-fat fad, once embraced with a near-religious fervor, has ended, fat is back on the menu. Chefs are adding the once-verboten ingredient to dishes ranging from cauliflower and sweet potatoes to biscuits and steak, and embracing lard, tallow, suet and drippings as part of a nose-to-tail approach to cooking.
Fat Adds Flavor
Cosentino likes cooking an animal in its own fats, making duck leg confit with duck fat and serving pin bone steak with beef bone marrow dip. The matched fats allow the underlying flavor of the animal to shine through, he explains. The animal fats are also excellent media for infusing herbs, aromatics and spices.
When ordering meat, Cosentino considers the fat content of the animal and prefers breeds that offer a balanced meat-to-fat ratio over higher fat breeds and often chooses Berkshire hogs and Holstein cattle instead of Mangalitsa hogs and Wagyu cattle; Liberty ducks are also a favorite.
Chef Sean Brock, a featured presenter at ChefConnect: Nashville 2020, incorporates fats into several of the dishes served at Husk restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, including a mixture of butter and lard — called pork butter — that is served with buttermilk rolls. The fried chicken recipe in his bestselling cookbook Heritage includes five kinds of fat: chicken fat, lard, canola oil, bacon fat and butter.
Brock told Tasting Table in 2014, “They all balance each other … Bacon adds smoke, country ham adds funk, chicken echoes chicken, butter browns at the end and lard is the standard thing to fry chicken in.”
In Charlotte, North Carolina, chef Matthew Krenz also embraces fat as a kitchen staple. He is developing recipes for a new venture, Beach Shack Coffee, where the café menu will tortillas and biscuits; both will be made with beef fat.
“We moved away from adding lard to biscuits [but] if you want a really kick ass biscuit, you need lard,” he says. “Fat equals flavor.”
Add Fat, Cut Waste
Krenz often incorporates fats into unexpected dishes: His recipe for beef fat confit sweet potatoes, made with sweet potato and sorghum puree, goat cheese crema, pickled poblanos and cold-smoked jalapenos, helped him nab the 2017 North Carolina Restaurant Lodging Association Chef of the Year award. Krenz credits tallow for adding a deeper level of flavor to a humble ingredient like a sweet potato.
The second-generation rancher believes that helping out at Krenz Ranch, a beef cattle operation in New Salem, North Carolina, solidified his commitment to cooking with an entire animal, including the fat.
Cosentino also embraces nose-to-tail cooking because it ensures that fat ends up in a meal, not the trash can.
The National Restaurant Association 2019 Culinary Forecast listed zero waste cooking as a top trend. Fat accounts for about 20 percent of the carcass weight of an average beef cow, according to data from South Dakota State University. On a 750-pound steer carcass, 150 pounds of fat ends up on the cutting room floor. Concerns about food waste have led chefs to come up with creative (and delicious) strategies to incorporate more elements of an animal, including the fat, on their menus.
“Why would you throw away chicken fat and then roast a chicken in butter?” Cosentino asks.
Spreading the Love
Chefs might be committed to cooking with fat but getting diners excited about entrée descriptions featuring words like lard and tallow can take some time.
“Educating diners is the most difficult part [because] some diners still have a fear of fat,” Cosentino says.
The goal, he adds, is to make the dish so flavorful that diners abandon all concerns about fat. Feeding them some information about the history of cooking with fat is also a good idea.
“If you can explain the reasons you’re cooking with fat and connect it to the way their grandparents cooked, it goes a long way,” Cosentino says. “Guests are more apt to try something if they understand the reasoning behind it.”
Recipe: Tallow Biscuits
Courtesy of Matthew Krenz
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 ounces beef tallow
3¾ cups self-rising flour
½ cup sugar
1 cup milk
½ cup heavy cream
1. Cut butter and tallow into flour until mixture is coarse like cornmeal.
2. Stir in sugar.
3. Combine milk and cream, then work into dry mixture, being careful not to overwork.
4. Place dough on a floured surface, then dust dough with flour. After a few folds, roll until 2 inches thick and cut into squares or use a biscuit cutter to portion.
5. Bake at 425 degrees F until golden brown.