When field dressing a deer, you may notice a sheer, lacy net covering the stomach. Don’t mistake this as something to be left in the gut pile. It’s a web of valuable fat that can be used to wrap around meat to impart flavor, juice and shape.
Caul fat, sometimes referred to as lace fat, is a delicate, thin membrane of connective tissue with fat deposits embedded in it. This thin membrane covers the stomach in the abdominal cavity found in deer, pigs, cows and lambs. While the lining looks a bit intimidating, it’s easy to remove as long as you’re cautious.
When field dressing, you’ll need to make small cuts in the caul fat where it attaches to the spleen to separate. Always take the utmost care not to puncture the guts because you don’t want any intestinal fluids tainting the meat. I try to make as few cuts as possible. Once the caul fat is free from the organs, you can gently pull the rest of it off the stomach. If you take your time with this process, you’ll be able to recover most of the caul fat.
The goal is to try to get it out in one piece, but don’t be discouraged if it rips. The beauty of caul fat is that it’s self-adhesive. It sticks to itself, which makes it easy to take small bits and attach it back together when wrapping meat.
Caul fat can tear easily, so you don’t want to throw it in an icy cooler with the remaining carcass. If you remember to bring a plastic bag, you can separate it. Bagging it separately not only protects the structure but also helps prevent debris from becoming entangled in the web.
Before cooking or freezing, wash the caul fat. I do this in a colander and continuously run water through it. Washing not only cleans the web, but also helps rid any offal smells.
You can cook with it right away, but caul fat freezes well. Cut it in half for two different cooking applications, or freeze in one package. Over time, fat oxidizes in the freezer making it go rancid faster than roasts or loins. Since caul fat is 90% fat, it’s probably best to use within a year or two, although I haven’t tested the limits of this yet.
Defrost the caul fat in the fridge a day in advance of cooking. It will retain the shape it took when frozen and feel quite rigid because it is saturated fat that will remain hard until warmed up. Instead, place the caul fat in a bowl of lukewarm water to soften and return to its original, pliable form.
Deer are ruminant animals; their fat makeup is even more saturated than ducks or pigs. Fat that comes from the gut cavity is hard. While retrieving the caul fat, you might find other chunks of solid fat inside the gut cavity. Suet attaches to the kidneys, which you can render into tallow.
If you were able to pull the caul fat out in one piece, chances are you will find a few thick chunks around the outer edges where you cut it away from the organs. These take time to render and are better suited to slow cooking with a generous amount of heat. You can also clarify thick pieces of fat into tallow for other applications.
Tallow cools quickly into a wax-like texture that can coat the mouth. It isn’t a popular fat to use, although McDonald’s used tallow from beef to fry their french fries up until the ’90s.
The main, inner web of caul fat is thin and more delicate. This section is what you will want to use because it renders quickly and bastes the meat with moisture while cooking. Caul fat makes the perfect casing for ground meats or lean muscle.
Caul fat has been used all around the world since Roman times in various cuisines. The most popular dishes are French crépinette and pâté, English faggots and Italian fegatelli. Some indigenous Native Americans considered the caul fat a delicacy and would celebrate a successful hunt by wrapping it around the heart.
Today you can apply these same basic principles to your wild game meal. Barding is a technique for cooking meat wrapped in a layer of fat before roasting over an open fire. I like to think of caul fat as a convenient form of bacon to wrap around lean cuts without overpowering the flavor of wild game.
You can also get a little more creative and make a ballotine, or use it to wrap your favorite meatball recipe. Later this week I’ll share how you can make the perfect summertime meal with caul fat and ground wild game.