very culture has its favorite oil or fat for cooking. From the wok to the non-stick pan, the vast majority of recipes begin with a drizzle of fat. The Mediterranean diet famously uses olive oil in virtually everything, but coconut oil, butter, lard and tallow are well represented in other world cuisines. Whatever the culinary tradition, the reality is that fat is flavor, and is a necessary part of many dishes, either in the preparatory phase, or as a finishing flourish. Fat is also a vital part of a balanced diet, and a carrier for important fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K. Though it’s old news in France, duck fat is making the menus in hip American restaurants, one of which is even named after it.
So Why Duck Fat?
The first and most obvious reason is because it’s incredibly tasty. Some say it’s better than butter, or even bacon, that other darling of the food scene! Duck fat offers a rich, silky mouth feel that transforms whatever it touches, without an overpowering flavor of its own. Duck fat imparts a light umami quality to vegetables and mushrooms, and is the perfect fat to partner with potatoes. Nothing crisps potatoes quite like duck fat does. The high smoke point of duck fat makes it a chef favorite; it can be cooked at high temperatures without smoking or altering its flavor. And unlike butter or olive oil, duck fat can be recycled. For convenience, duck fat stores in the freezer for quite a long time.
Duck Fat and Health
Before you object to duck fat as an unhealthy option, and turn back to margarine and vegetable oil, read on. According to Sharon Tyler Herbst, author of "The New Food Lover’s Companion," some researchers believe that hydrogenated oils may actually be more damaging than regular saturated fats. And recently, studies have taken a look at the stats on duck fat, and have proven what the French have known all along: duck fat is low in saturated fat and high in unsaturated fat, making it one of healthiest animal fats you can eat. Duck fat contains only 33% saturated fat, 62% unsaturated fat (13.7% of which is polyunsaturated fat, containing Omega-6 and Omega-3 essential oils). Duck fat is closer nutritionally to olive oil, with 75% monounsaturated fat, 13% saturated fat, 10% Omega-6 linoleic acid and 2% Omega-3 linoleic acid, than it is to other animal fats. And it has less saturated fat than butter (which has 51%). While this is not a recommendation that duck fat replace every other fat or oil in the kitchen, it does encourage the use of duck fat without guilt.
The French Paradox
Long a mystery to the United States, the French paradox is the term given to the puzzling fact that the French are thinner, with a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease than Americans, even though they enjoy a diet full of animal fats and butter. Some theories explain that the reasons for this might include the French tendency to serve smaller portions and to drink lots of antioxidant-rich red wine. But in recent years, the researchers have looked more closely at the consumption of duck fat. Especially in the Southwest region of France, where duck is the de rigueur fat, and the incidence of cardiovascular disease is about half that of the rest of France, already less than half that of the United States. So the French that eat the most duck fat (and foie gras) have the least trouble with their tickers.
Cooking with Duck Fat
It makes everything taste better. Try it, if you don’t believe it. Pommes frites, better known as french fries, are never better than when they are deep fried in a vat of fragrant duck fat. Or, lacking a deep fryer, simply fry potatoes in a heavy pan with lots of duck fat, and finish with minced garlic and fresh chopped parsley to experience French fries as the French do. Roast potatoes in duck fat and never go back to olive oil. Fry potato pancakes, sear pieces of chicken before roasting in the oven, and sauté just about anything in duck fat, and you will be converted. Whip duck fat and butter in your mashed potatoes for a melt-in-your mouth version of this classic comfort dish. But don’t stop there. Duck fat can replace butter in pastry for flakey perfection, replace olive oil in salad dressing, coat popcorn with deliciousness, or even add a little je ne sais quoi to a seared piece of fish. Duck fat is a vital part of traditional confit, where duck leg or gizzards are cooking slowly in this golden fat, and then preserved in it. Garlic can also be slow-cooked in duck fat to create a mellow version of roasted garlic, perfect to be spread on a baguette, added to potatoes or chicken dishes.