The fat of the duck, or of the hen

A how-to

By
June 19, 2009

What’s the easiest/most economical way to get a lot of duck fat?
— Donna S., Windham, New Hampshire

What should I do with all that chicken fat I skimmed off when I made stock?
— Susu B., Brooklyn, New York

Isn’t it fun that we’re allowed to come out of hiding and talk about cooking with animal fat? There’s even a whole cookbook devoted to it. Health-conscious publications like Cooking Light are shifting their focus to balancing certain types of fats (e.g., saturated) without freaking out about fat in general. Sure, if we eat too much of it, we’ll get fat(ter) and die young, etc., but that’s true of virtually all foods.

Poultry fat has a lot of flavor, so a little goes a longer way, and it’s less saturated than butter and lard. It’s also abundant when cooking chickens and ducks, so it makes sense to learn how to use poultry fat in the kitchen to avoid throwing money away.

Duck fat

“Easiest” and “most economical” rarely go together in life, and this is no exception. By far the easiest way to get a lot of duck fat is to buy it. Look for a specialty store or meat counter that makes its own patés and terrines, as it’s likely to be swimming in various excess animal fats (hopefully not literally, but YMMV).

Who knows? In a cozy New England village like Windham, they may give out duck fat free for the asking when you buy your monthly supply of hardtack, molasses, and whale oil. Here on the dangerous streets of Portland, Oregon, the pushers call it “Peking White,” and it runs about $7.50 a pound.

If you can’t find it locally, you can buy it online, but the shipping costs will be brutal (overnight required). Depending on what you cook with it, you can probably re-use it several times, which would amortize the financial sting.

The most economical way is to cook and eat ducks and save the resulting fat. The good news is that farm-raised ducks are embarrassingly obese (does this decoy make my ass look fat?), and each duck can yield a couple of cups of fat if you’re thorough.

The simplest method is roasting. Trim and save the excess skin for rendering (which we’ll get to later) and pierce the remaining skin with a serving fork (try not to penetrate the meat) to vent the fat. Add some water to the roasting pan to discourage burning. Once your duck is roasted, strain and refrigerate the liquid gold found in the roasting pan.

Some recipes call for simmering or steaming the duck (you can use water or stock) before roasting. This should yield a cup or two of easy-to-collect duck fat. Cool and refrigerate the fat until it’s semi-solid.

If you’re cooking duck parts separately — pan-searing breasts, for example — score the skin (not the meat) and start them skin-side down on medium-to-low heat for several minutes to release the fat, which you can drain and save before proceeding.

Chicken fat

When it comes to cooking with poultry fats, there really are no limits, but I can give you some ideas. Schmaltz, or chicken fat, was a traditional staple in European Jewish cooking, when access to Mediterranean olive and seed oils was limited and the use of pork fat or (when serving meat) butter was forbidden.

Many classic Ashkenazi dishes call for schmaltz, including matzo balls, chopped chicken livers, kugel, and latkes. It’s also a common German spread for hearty bread, sprinkled with salt.

Going off the traditional rails on a crazy-delicious train, try schmaltz in place of any other flavorful fat — for example, in any kind of roux.

Duck fat has a more refined reputation, but as Mamster explained in a column on cooking with solid fats, duck and chicken fats are largely interchangeable with each other, and with lard.

Use schmaltz in place of some or all of the duck fat when frying potatoes or making duck confit. Or how about straight-up chicken confit? (Substitute chicken fat for the olive oil.) Or chicken rillettes?

Get freaky with it. Make a chicken pot pie with a schmaltzy crust. Pop some popcorn in it. And let us know how it turns out.

How to render poultry fat from skin trimmings

Here’s the skin from the breasts and back of one chicken.

And here it is, diced.

Add the skin, along with a small amount of water, to a saucepan.

Simmer over medium heat; when it looks like this, you’re halfway there.

Once the water boils off, lower the heat and cook until the skin bits (but not the fat) are starting to brown. When it looks like this, you’re done rendering. Remove from the heat.

Strain the fat; I managed to get 1/4 cup.

Here is the schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat.

And here are the cracklins, or gribenes. Feed these (with salt) to someone you love.

The fat can be stored for weeks in the refrigerator or months in the freezer (I use zip-top bags for freezing).

Based in Portland, Oregon, Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees.

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1. by Kim on Jun 19, 2009 at 3:30 PM PDT

So Hank: If you skim off the chicken fat when you’re making stock (as Susu did), you can just use it as is, right? Fry your potatoes right in it?

2. by Hank Sawtelle on Jun 19, 2009 at 4:20 PM PDT

Kim, yep, although it’s never as yellow and pure when it comes from stock. It still works though.

3. by JudithK on Jun 21, 2009 at 9:07 AM PDT

The kicker with taking fat from stock is that you’ll most likely have some moisture in it so its going to hiss spit sputter splatter, so be careful!

Fried potatoes in duck fat are a thing of glory!!

4. by Arkon on Jun 21, 2009 at 4:14 PM PDT

Great use of the word gribenes... my grandfather would be proud.

5. by Heather Arndt Anderson on Jun 24, 2009 at 2:17 PM PDT

I keep my duck and chicken fats in a tub in the freezer so I can spoon some out to use for things like roux. You’ll get best bechamel and country gravy EVER if you make your roux with duck fat. A little bit in mashed potatoes is amazing, too.

In Portland, Pastaworks sells duck fat by the pound, but you can buy duck legs at good Chinese groceries (like Fubonn) for a song.

6. by Caroline Cummins on Jun 26, 2009 at 3:09 PM PDT

Hey, Hank -- what do you use to strain the fat?

7. by Katie McNeil on Jun 28, 2009 at 2:31 PM PDT

I have successfully rendered duck fat using a crockpot. Use the low setting and only fill the pot about 1/3 full, it takes all day but there is little chance of burning or splattering and it only takes a minimum of attention.

8. by Hank Sawtelle on Jul 7, 2009 at 2:04 PM PDT

@Caroline Cummins

I just passed it through a simple mesh strainer. Most of the debris is pretty large. If you wanted to clarify it more you could pass it through cheesecloth (while very warm, but not dangerously hot).

9. by Karen Woods on Jul 13, 2009 at 5:40 PM PDT

Maybe I am just too culinary school, or old school, but I just render duck fat (I never actually did chicken fat)in a cast iron skillet. Low and slow.

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Ask Hank

Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees, and an intense curiosity about food and cooking. Follow Hank’s blog, Sous Vide Jones.

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