Cooking with beef fat and pork fat is somewhat of a lost art these days. As a society, we have replaced natural animal fats with vegetable, corn, and canola oil in an effort to limit exposure to harmful fats, a reputation that may not be as well-deserved as it seems. Beef tallow and pork lard fell out of popularity during the early 1900s but are seeing a renaissance today. We couldn't be happier about it because tallow and lard are wonderful ingredients for frying and baking, and they are one more way we can ensure that we are using as much of the animal as we can.
What Is Beef Fat? (Tallow)
Beef fat used for cooking is typically called tallow. Tallow is made by rendering beef fat, particularly suet – a hard fat found around the kidneys of cattle. Tallow is a shelf-stable fat that can be made at home using any form of beef fat, not just suet.
Tallow has a high smoke point that makes it a perfect choice for frying vegetables and sautéing meat. It adds a subtle beef flavor.
A little-known fact about beef nutrition is that most of the benefits are not found in meat. Beef is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are found almost entirely in the fat. Since tallow is pure beef fat, using tallow for cooking can provide excellent health benefits.
What Is Pork Fat? (Lard)
Pork fat used in cooking is called lard. Lard is made by rendering the fat from pork, and it can be taken from the pork belly, shoulder, or back. Pork lard is also rendered from the fat found around the kidneys. Lard is shelf-stable and has a similar consistency to butter.
Lard doesn't have quite as high of a smoke point as tallow but has a cleaner flavor that is perfect for baked goods. Rendered lard melts easily and is perfect for many savory dishes.
Pork is one of the best sources of Vitamin D, and lard is simply loaded with it. Pork produced by factory farms is lower in nutritional value than pork raised in a pasture.
Other Animal Fats Popular for Cooking
Another delicious animal fat product to use is duck fat. Rendering fat from duck skin is one of the best parts of duck hunting season, and the little fried bits of skin are some of the most coveted treats that come out of our kitchen. Fats can also be rendered from the skin of geese, swans, and other waterfowl.
Chicken fat is another popular cooking fat that does not get enough attention. Rendered chicken fat even has its own fun name: Schmaltz. Whip that one out at your next trivia party.
Any ruminant – including deer, elk, moose, sheep, and goat – has thick, hard fat around the kidneys. The suet will render down to make lard, and you can use it for cooking, baking, or even preventing your tools from rusting. Tallow is one of the most popular ways to lubricate the barrel of black powder rifles.
Nutrition of Tallow and Lard
Many people associate tallow and lard with unhealthy fats. In some ways, the reputation these natural fats gained for unhealthiness was unwarranted and came about as a way to sell less-expensive products. In the early 1900s, Proctor and Gamble bought a U.S. Patent for a process called hydrolyzation. The process converts liquid vegetable oils into thicker products.
How Crisco Became the Enemy of Beef Fat
Proctor and Gamble introduced Crisco in 1911 as a cheaper alternative to animal fat. Later, lard and tallow were believed to be unhealthy due to high levels of saturated fat that was blamed for coronary artery disease. Vegetable oils were believed to be healthier alternatives to both tallow and lard.
Scientific evidence that vegetable oil is better than tallow or that shortening is better than lard does not back up the ironclad claims many nutritionists make. The truth is that moderation is key no matter which one you use.
Saturated fats were believed to be a cause of heart disease for decades, but recent research shows that there is less of a connection between saturated fats and heart disease than previously thought. In fact, some saturated fats have been shown to reduce bad cholesterol and provide good cholesterol.
Official nutrition from the United States Department of Agriculture shows that 100 grams of vegetable oil contain 884 calories and 14 grams of saturated fat, less than animal oils. In comparison, the same amount of lard accounts for 898 calories and 32 grams of saturated fat. Tallow is higher in both calories and saturated fat at 902 calories and 50 grams of fat.
Both lard and tallow contain unsaturated fats and amino acids like DHA and Omega 3 fatty acids, which are essential for brain health. Lard is particularly high in monounsaturated fats, which are considered to be healthy dietary fats. Monounsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature and is found in all red meat. These healthy fats are either in lower amounts or completely lacking in vegetable-derived oils.
Cooking With Beef Fat vs Pork Fat
Cooking with beef fat and pork fat is a lot like cooking with other oils, but there are some specific differences that can make a big difference in the kitchen.
Cooking with Beef Fat
Until the 1990s, McDonald's deep-fried the chain's signature french fries in beef tallow. The beef tallow gave the fries a savory and beefy flavor, perfect for devouring with a hamburger. We wish those fries were still around, but you can make your own at home with rendered beef fat.
The advantages of tallow over vegetable oil are the high smoke point of around 420 degrees and the unique composition of the fat that gives the fries a golden hue. The high smoke point also makes tallow an ideal oil for reverse searing a steak.
Cooking with Pork Fat
Pork fat smokes at around 374 degrees, which is on the lower side. It is roughly comparable to coconut oil or corn oil for use as a frying oil. Pork lard is ideal for baking and is essential for making tortillas. It works just as well for pastries and biscuits to get a light and fluffy texture and a crispy exterior. Lard is available in a few different forms that have different properties.
Pork lard is available as unrendered, rendered, processed, and leaf. Leaf fat is the most desirable form of lard. It is rendered from kidney fat and has no residual odor of pork, and doesn't require processing. Processed lard is clarified and has no pork flavor. Rendered pork fat is the most common form of lard, while unrendered lard is simply pork fat.
Lard is a good choice for frying at lower temperatures like cooking sirloin steak or pork chops, and works great for searing or cooking vegetables. It's useful when preparing meat like ground pork for cooking sausage patties and is good for seasoning a cast iron skillet or griddle.
Differences Between Beef Fat and Pork Fat
The primary differences between pork fat vs beef fat depend on what you are hoping to accomplish. We have found that tallow is best reserved for high-heat frying and searing, particularly when cooking beef or wild game that is complimented by the savory, beefy flavor.
We wouldn't use tallow for baking except when we are making a pie crust for a beef or chicken pot pie, but lard – particularly pork leaf fat – is wonderful in flaky baked goods, biscuits, pie crusts, and cookies. Pure fat has no flavor and does a better job of producing flakiness than butter.
Is Pork Fat Better than Beef Fat?
Both lard and tallow can be significant sources of calories and fat, which is one of the reasons that people who are practicing a keto-type diet have spearheaded the recent rise in popularity of these two old-school cooking oils. While both oils have benefits, lard is more likely to provide the average home cook with opportunities.
Great Tallow and Lard vs Lower-Quality Options
Higher-quality beef and pork will produce better-quality tallow and lard. It might be hard to find in some places, but you should look for grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork animal oils. Healthy meats lead to healthy fats, and healthy fats taste better and provide more nutritional value. Specialty grocers and many butchers will be able to get high-quality beef or pork fat with known husbandry.
Unfortunately, you'll want to read labels on packaged tallow and lard in stores. Many brands use a combination of different types of fat and may add things like seed oils that detract from the pure fat experience.