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I have a friend who stove-cooks her popcorn in coconut oil. She’s heard the call to do away with canola oil, peanut oil, corn oil, and other man-made fats that have come about since Crisco was introduced in 1911. She’s read that “real” fats—like coconut oil, olive oil, even butter and lard—are actually better for our health.
I believe the hype. My great uncle—a physician who at 94 just handed his larding needle down to me—credits cream, butter, and other fabulous fats for his longevity and that of his late siblings, all of whom lived into their 90s and beyond. Inspired by his preachings, I’ve long saved my bacon drippings and holiday goose fat and used them to flavor food. I buy the largest canister of olive oil the market sells and still plow through it, glug after glug. As I type, a stick of butter sits in a bowl next to my stovetop. I’ve replaced vegetable oil with coconut oil when making pancakes. But when it comes to certain high-smoke-point preparations where I don’t want to taste the tropics, I’ve always kept a bottle of canola oil on hand as well. Until now.
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I stopped by Cured in Boulder earlier this year and was struck by a display of jarred fat. A Denver-based company called Fatworks sells pristine white jars of lard, leaf lard, duck fat, and tallow. Not exactly easy to find, I was especially intrigued by the tallow. Tallow is rendered suet, the fat of a cow. It has fallen so out of use over the decades that when I checked a stack of cookbooks from British authors out of the library (the Brits are known for using suet in mincemeat and Christmas pudding) tallow didn’t show up as an ingredient in any of them. I got my hands on a jar of Fatworks’ tallow and have been experimenting with it all week.
Known for its high smoking point, you can guess where I started: A batch of stove-popped popcorn. The tallow produced a bar snack that had lovely hints of marrow-like beefy flavor, but it was subtle. If I played a name-that-fat parlor trick, I’m not sure any guest could guess the source. Next, I made a dinner of morel-studded, flaky pastry-encased beef Wellington, subbing tallow anytime the recipe called for other fats. My husband had thirds. In perhaps the most well-known application (thanks to Eric Schlosser we know that McDonald’s once cooked their fries in tallow), I also roasted some fingerling potatoes in the flavorful fat.
Each recipe using tallow was such a success that I quickly realized that it is the savory, high-heat player that has been missing from my pantry of natural fats. You know what else I did this week? I threw away an almost-full bottle of canola oil. Perhaps that was rash. I should have oiled my wooden steak knives with it first.