I’m a solid home cook and a fan of intense flavors, once writing in a dating profile that I loved “thunderstorms, whiskey, and charred, salty fat.” A past smoker who forever misses the habit, I still begin my day with a four-shot espresso. I like rare red meat, add bacon to burgers, and will try the hot peppers. My inner Henry VIII bangs away on the table for more mead and mince pie.
But I’m also a 41-year-old woman with a wish to grow old gracefully—by which I mean “healthy and hopefully hot.” Red meat isn’t great for anyone on the regular, and it’s terrible for the environment: A 2018 analysis suggested that giving up meat and dairy is the “single biggest way” for an individual to shrink their environmental footprint. I love meat too much to give it up forever—at least not right away—but I care too much about the planet to continue to eat unsustainably. Baby steps. This means more veggies and more beans—but how, when you’re a flavor monster?
I got an idea this past winter while visiting family in Oklahoma—where in a few short days I’d had a steak dinner and maybe two or three lunchtime burgers. (Sounds shocking, but “Want a burger for lunch?” is basically the state motto.) In penance, I was sautéing mushroom, shallots, and kale for my family, when out of the corner of my eye I spied a jar of lard, which my mom had used in cookies for Santa. I threw a small dollop in the pan toward the end of the sauté and let the veggies finish cooking.
They were exquisite: beautifully browned, with a touch of meaty flavor in an otherwise all-vegetable dish. An invisible bulb dinged above my head. Most health journeys don’t begin with a spoonful of lard. Mine did.
I made a New Year’s resolution: No more processed bread, and meat just twice a month. My main courses would revolve around vegetables, beans, and soups; I’d sauté mushrooms, blacken red peppers, and char squash. But to ease myself into this vegetarian-ish diet, I’d also reup my relationship with animal fats like lard—which I’d previously only used for frying chicken. It’s the only way I could go almost meatless without completely losing my wits.
I needed some guidance on the best way to pursue this strategy—so I turned to the professionals at Ends Meat, a “whole-animal salumeria” in Brooklyn and Manhattan where I’ve shopped for years. They once threw a “butcherlette” party for one of my best pals before she got married, teaching a group of women how to properly take apart a pig. There’s not a scrap of livestock they don’t use: From the flesh and the fat to the bones and intestines, nothing is wasted.
Tell a butcher you want to write about eating less meat, you assume they’ll usher you out the door. But Joe Geinert, the kitchen manager at Ends Meat’s Industry City location, was enthusiastic about my plan. “Fat is an effective matrix for carrying flavors,” Geinert said. “Fat itself isn’t necessarily flavor, but it holds the flavors of other foods very well.”
We got straight to it: Why are pigs so good, and their fat so valuable? “We know that pigs are delicious, but so does every apex predator in nature,” Geinert said. “So pigs evolved to be tough as hell to protect their delicious meat and softer fats.” That means they have a few layers of fat, including a tougher outer layer used in sausages and salami. What’s known to butchers as leaf lard is the soft, visceral fat in pigs’ abdominal cavities. This well-protected lard is perfect for cooking (and baking), which is why it’s the most conventional lard sold at butcheries and used in kitchens. You can buy it from grocery stores, but it’s better from the butcher: They’ll render the fat freshly and correctly, and they can tell you if their livestock comes from farms that feed and treat their animals with care—which affects quality.
Cooking with animal fat is similar to learning how to salt properly—sometimes it’s small pats through the process, or a finishing flourish at the end. Like salt, fat reveals and delivers flavor—but too much can be overkill. Animal fats congeal as they cool, which can be prevented by incorporating them with other fats like olive or grapeseed oil. A vinaigrette that uses a wee bit of lard along with grapeseed oil, for instance? A subtly pork-tinged salad dressing may sound off—but it’s pure heaven. (And it’s got me making more salads.)
Like salt, fat reveals and delivers flavor—but too much can be overkill.
Geinert also told me about beef fat, aka beef tallow, which he’d recently added to a pan of steamed broccoli just as it finished cooking. Adding flavor and char, it was enough to satisfy a butcher craving beef with broccoli. And then there’s schmaltz, or chicken fat—or liquid gold, as Geinert referred to it. A drizzle of schmaltz at the end adds richness to soups and vegetables, he said. That gave me an idea: Instead of chicken liver mousse, I recently made mushroom pâté, spooning a little schmaltz over the dish at the end—and finding a pâté as satisfying as any should be. I’ve also been finishing enchilada sauces with rendered fat, pouring the savory and smoky sauces over tortillas filled with veggies.
Gentle use of fats, girl is my mantra. I’m deliberate, learning to use them at the right time—as opposed to serving up daily deep-fried vegetable croquettes, which are not on my resolution list. I’m aware that adding pork fat to a pot of beans or soup isn’t reinventing the wheel. But it’s been creatively helpful: Knowing that beloved stews, greens, and bean dishes work in part because of the fat they’re cooked in, I can translate that process to searing off—not frying!—cauliflower or brussels sprouts.
There is rarely any meat in my home now—I buy it twice a month from a butcher and cook it that day. My vegetable bin is full, and frequently replenished. I soak beans, which makes me feel like a hippie-goddess of the hearth. I keep animal fats in the back of the fridge in a dark container, which is how they last the longest. I feel less bad environmentally and better physically, even as my love of intense flavors endures. I’m eating my veggies while using rendered fats in careful and creative ways—so the medieval king who dictates my tastes can get the flavor he wants, and avoid ruining the planet in the process.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious