Ever made chicken stock at home? It’s so good and not that hard to do, but there’s all of that fat on top. Once it’s chilled, it’s pale and gloppy and greasy and…gross. There is absolutely no way to make solidified chicken fat look becoming in an Instagram photo. But it’s culinary gold, I promise. Don’t pitch it! Cook with it.
Chicken fat is healthier than you think. After decades of thinking we were doing the right thing by cooking with heavily-refined neutral oils (like canola, sunflower or soybean), the tide is turning. Research is showing us that much-maligned saturated fats are not across-the-board horrible. Using chicken fat in moderation is not only totally okay, but kind of good for you. Just don’t put it in your smoothies by the fistful.
Chicken fat makes food taste incredible. Sure, you’re not going to make bananas foster with a nice, big glob of chicken fat—you need to pair it with foods strategically—but any dish where you want an uber-savory, extra-chickeny boost will benefit from chicken fat. Besides the obvious (matzo balls), it’s great subbed for butter in a roux, added to the pastry for a chicken pot pie, or used for sautéing vegetables (particularly mushrooms and brassicas like cabbage and cauliflower).
If you cook chicken, you’re already paying for chicken fat in the first place. The easiest way to get chicken fat is to scrape it off chilled homemade chicken stock. There are a few schools of thought on the best way to make it (pressure cooker, slow cooker, or on the stove in a regular pot), but the gist of it is homemade is better than storebought. If you’re buying whole chickens to roast or break down into pieces yourself, surely you’re trimming off excess skin and fat. Start freezing it to make a big batch of the best chicken fat of all: schmaltz. (There’s a flavor difference, which we’ll get to later.)
Chicken fat has a higher smoke point than butter. Butter’s smoke point is 350 degrees F. Chicken fat’s smoke point? 375 degrees. I wouldn’t use either to pan-sear a steak, but for sautéing, chicken fat is an unrefined cooking fat that easily holds its own.
It’s a thrifty and mindful way to honor the chicken who died to satisfy your appetite. If I’m gonna spend money on dead birds, I’m going to get as much mileage out of those things as possible. Chicken fat imbues chicken flavor to plenty of dishes long after your coq au vin is a distant memory.
Chicken fat has been around since…oh, since chickens. So it’s not like this humble ingredient is a cutting-edge fad, but for avid home cooks, the sensibility behind using it is very with the times. I’m not quite sure when I started hoarding chicken fat, but it was probably five or six years ago, when I bought a discounted copy of Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France. It’s a fantastic book, but not one for cooks who’d like to lighten up their diets; the subtitle, Recipes from France’s Magnificient Rustic Cuisine, is pretty much a giveaway for the type of fare you’ll find in its pages. Its homely, filling, and humble-yet-transcendent recipes are heavy on cooking the hell out of vegetables, and using fat not in dabs and drizzles, but in fractions of cups. Duck is a big deal in Southwest France (home of cassoulet), and duck fat is a cooking medium of choice.
What was once peasant food in France is now a de rigeur ingredient for American chefs today—duck fat is a flavor bomb, and a fine way to add a kiss of extra roastiness to vegetables and starches. (Also, it’s totally awesome in tamales instead of lard. Trust me.) One of Wolfert’s recipes was for chunks russet potatoes slow-roasted in duck fat, and my god is it a killer. The potatoes get an even, pervasive golden-brown crust that you just can’t get from high-temperature roasting, but the interiors are fluffy and starchy. I could eat a whole pan, which is maybe good, because for some reason the leftovers just don’t hold up.
Duck is a fatty bird, as anyone who’s seared duck breasts or roasted a whole duck knows. But still, few people routinely cook duck at home, and so duck fat is a premium ingredient that must be sought out (I mail-ordered mine). I know how to render fat, and I didn’t like spending a little less than a buck an ounce for a tub of it. So I thought, hmm, maybe duck’s discount kin is the key.
Yes, chicken. I wanted lots of the skin and flaccid white or yellow stuff so many recipes tell us to tear off and discard. Instead of putting it in your trash to stink up the garbage in the summertime, save it. Very few things will make you feel more like a crazy old lady than stockpiling freezer bags of chicken skin and chicken fat, but stick with me.
If you don’t live in a major metropolitan area rich with Jewish delis, chicken fat is a DIY labor of love, something you can’t just go out and buy like a tub of Earth Balance. The homemade chicken stock scenario described at the beginning of this article is the easiest way to go: make the stock, strain it, cool it, chill it overnight, and bang! There’s your chicken fat resting on top, like a greasy crown. Some chicken parts are fattier than others; necks and backs will get you a lot of fat.
Chicken fat scraped off stock is softer and milder than chicken fat slowly rendered in a pan. The latter isn’t just run-of-the-mill chicken fat, but schmaltz, the crème de la crème of chicken fat. It takes more work to make and is messier than the stock option, but the end product is divine. Because schmaltz starts out with chopped-up bits of skin and fat and just a little water, the skin eventually crisps up in the pool of chicken fat that renders out, and you’re left not only with fat infused with a roasty-toasty goodness, but these tiny, golden-brown bits of skin and meat known as gribenes. Drain the gribenes on a paper towel, crisp them up in a low oven for 10 or 20 minutes if they’re still chewy, and then sprinkle them with salt. Dangerously snackable, gribenes are a bit like heart-attack popcorn. I like to sprinkle gribenes on sautéed vegetables or mashed potatoes, or even poached eggs. Check out this recipe if you’d like to make your own schmaltz.
Chicken fat isn’t great for everything—sometimes it can overpower other ingredients—but its milder flavor makes it more versatile than duck fat and sassier than butter. Last night I made my favorite dumpling recipe (from The Joy of Cooking to serve with borscht, but instead of working butter into the dough, I subbed chicken fat. Then I simmered the dumplings in the very chicken stock I’d scraped the fat from in the first place. which felt satisfyingly full-circle. They were fluffy and light yet intensely savory and undeniably chickeny; we all ate at least one more dumpling than we would have otherwise.
I think of chicken fat the same was I do my pair of turquoise cowboy boots. They don’t make sense to wear all of the time, but when I do, they always make a splash. A jar of chicken fat in the fridge could be the powerhouse addition to your cooking arsenal you’ve been waiting for.
Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor, and an unabashed hoarder of drippings and chicken skin. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Sara is the author of The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook. Follow her on Twitter: @Sausagetarian.
Main photo by Alice Carrier CC BY-ND