Last week, I threatened to throw out my incredible store of bacon fat, and was (properly) chastised for my irrationality. I began investigating and couldn’t really find a satisfactory explanation of the great enigma that is bacon fat online. So this week, I thought I’d devote my post to trying to explain exactly what this bacon fat is, what I’m supposed to do with it, and, perhaps most importantly, how I’m supposed to keep it without it going rancid. Without further ado, I present to you, the Top 10 Most Frequently Asked Questions (in my head) About Bacon Fat, answers according to me (corrections and further explanations welcome):
1. What is bacon fat?
Believe it or not, there are several types of fat you can get from just one pig (pigs being the most multipurpose animals ever). “Lard” is the general term for rendered pork fat; depending on what part of the pig the fat came from, it can be either back fat/fatback (from the back/shoulder/rump of the pig), leaf lard (from around the kidneys), caul fat (from around the intestines), or belly fat (from the belly). Bacon fat is from the belly.
2. What is the difference between bacon fat and lard?
Bacon fat is a type of lard. That said, the product you can buy labeled “lard” and the bacon fat you can make are not the same thing; bacon fat will have a smokier flavor than lard, which should have a purely neutral flavor.
3. Isn’t bacon fat terrible for you?
Part of my reasoning on throwing out my bacon fat was, really, am I going to fry things in bacon fat? Shouldn’t I be using olive oil, or at least butter? Well, I’ve now read a fairly detailed description of the components of pork fat (approximately 39% saturated fat, 45% monounsaturated fat, and 11% polyunsaturated fat, for those of you who that means anything to), and while I still understand little of it, I’m convinced that pork fat is okay for me. I think this mostly has to do with the fact that bacon fat is not trans fat, which as we all know, has been declared America’s #1 Enemy (orange alert level).
4. How do I render bacon fat?
Now we get into the meat of it (ha, ha). According to Meriam-Webster, “to render” simply means “to extract by melting”; ie you are extracting the bacon fat by heating up (melting) the bacon. So cook yourself up some bacon! The fat it’s swimming in by the end is the rendered bacon fat. Remove the bacon itself with tongs or a spatula onto a plate lined with paper towel. The fat left in the pan is your gold. LET IT COOL BEFORE YOU POUR IT OUT. LET IT COOL. LET IT COOL. I will get to more explanation of this in #6, but for now, just remember: bacon fat is very hot. It will burn. LET IT COOL (but not solidify).
5. Should I strain bacon fat? How do I do that?
Yes. If you don’t strain the bacon fat, there will be little chunks of browned bacon floating around in it, and they are what will gather bacteria and make the fat go rancid. A better question might be: Have you ever strained your bacon fat? The answer, sadly, would be no, I didn’t know I should until extremely recently. My unstrained bacon fat hasn’t killed me yet, but I’ve been keeping it in the freezer (which we’ll get to). From now on, I plan on straining, which you can do – fairly easily, it seems – by pouring the fat through either a paper towel, a coffee filter, or a fine sieve.
6. What kind of container should I store bacon fat in?
In my earlier post, I suggested using an aluminum can (cleaned out, of course). This was a little misleading of me – I think that would be a good way to store bacon fat, but not the way I have been. Though, as you can see from this picture, my storage system hasn’t worked out perfectly. I use a thick plastic container, well-cleaned, which was working great until one day I poured the bacon fat in when it was still too hot. Now I may have a bit of melted plastic in my bacon fat.
It could have been a lot worse – if you pour fat that is too hot into a glass jar, the glass may shatter. Yikes. I think I will be sticking with my plastic (well-fitting lid, no fear of shattering), but I’m going to watch the fat’s temperature more carefully from now on. Reading various online forums, I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of Southern grandmothers store their bacon fat in coffee cans. That seems like a good idea to me, but I never use coffee from a can, so it’s an impossibility right now.
7. Where should I store bacon fat?
And now we’ve come full circle to the motivation for this FAQ in the first place. I said I stored my bacon fat in the freezer and was called out on this because the fat gets really, really pretty solid, which means I’m less likely to use it. Michael, my friend and a cook I respect, said he keeps his bacon fat on his stovetop. His enthusiasm almost won me over to this idea. Bacon fat, right there, at my disposal? Great!
Almost. I can’t quite handle the idea of keeping the bacon fat right there on the stovetop, even if it were filtered (in which case it is actually supposed to be shelf-stable). Most people I ran across in CHOW forums or otherwise couldn’t handle it either (though most of them cited their Southern grandmothers who keep the bacon fat in a coffee can in the cupboard and are 95 years old and still kicking). Mine is going to live in my fridge from now on, which I think is a happy compromise.
8. How long will bacon fat keep?
I have had mine since about September, so that’s six months now, in the freezer. I’m not sure about in the fridge or shelf. Basically, you just keep adding rendered bacon fat to the same jar – I’m not sure if it mixes somewhat or just striates. White bacon fat is great. Beige bacon fat (what I have now) is fine. When your bacon fat has turned brown, it goes in the trash and you start a new jar, no matter what Michael says.
9. Now that I have all this bacon fat, what do I do with it?
As I’ve learned since my comeuppance, there are myriad uses for bacon fat. Basically, you can use it the way you would olive oil or butter to sauté – it will just have a smokier flavor. You can cut it into pastry or biscuits (as Toby suggested in the comments on the freezer post). At this point, I have a lot of bacon fat, so my next project is Bacon Fat Spice Cookies.
10. Can we talk about the fact that this already has a Wikipedia page?
So it’s not bacon fat, exactly. Still, crazy! Next project after Bacon Fat Spice Cookies.
With thanks to Jennifer McLagan’s Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes, Simply Recipes’ explanation of Rendering Bacon Fat, and the hundreds and hundreds of people who (surprisingly or not so surprisingly) have contributed to forums on the various aspects of this apparently tricky subject.