Cooking with animal fat seems to be all the rage right now, which is funny because humans have been using animal fats for far longer than they’ve been using vegetable oils. Up until relatively recently in human history, a lot of dishes would have been made using fat rendered from animals.
The rise of the various vegetable oils coincided with many other advances in food technology like the widespread availability of processed flour, sugar, and dairy. Modern foods spurred by that technological revolution largely abandoned inefficient and expensive animal fats as an ingredient in favor of convenient, cheap vegetable oils.
By now, most of us have figured out that you can sauté some greens in duck fat, but learning how to bake with animal fat is a whole new skill set, especially because many baked goods recipes were never developed with animal fats in mind.
First, to clarify: the words tallow, lard, and grease are all used to describe rendered fats. And like most culinary terms, they don’t have hard-line definitions, just common uses. These terms can be used somewhat interchangeably, but are generally used to refer to specific types of fat.
Tallow usually refers to rendered beef fat and sometimes deer fat. The commonality between the two is that the fat, when rendered, remains solid at room temperature and can have a chalkier, waxier texture. This is due to tallow having a higher saturated fat content, with deer tallow being higher in saturated fat than beef tallow.
Lard is almost always pork fat, usually rendered leaf fat (organ fat). But, it is sometimes used to describe bear fat as well. Lard seems to be used to describe a rendered fat that becomes soft, but not liquid, at room temperature.
Duck fat is usually called just that, duck fat. And bear fat is commonly referred to as bear grease, bear oil, or bear lard. Which term is used seems to vary from region to region, but “grease” seems to be an up-and-coming term, and is the only one with its own hat that I know of.
All the fats mentioned above will not be as neutral tasting as vegetable oils. More like butter, they'll have their own flavor. However, if properly rendered and stored, it should actually be milder in flavor than most butter.
The flavor can vary and is influenced by many factors—the time of year, the health of the animal, and its diet. This variation is less pronounced with herbivorous animals. Beef and deer tallow is pretty consistent. Fat from omnivores exhibits a much wider range of flavor profiles. Waterfowl fat can range from snowy white and clean to a reddish “fishy” color. Bear and hog fat will vary just as much. There is going to be a difference between a corn-fed animal and one that has been scavenging dead salmon.
As a general guideline, the whiter the fat, the more neutral it will taste. But the best way to determine how it will taste is to render it and smell it. Any off flavors will be easy to smell as the fat oxidizes. Properly rendered fats from “clean animals” should not taste “rancid,” “bitter,” or “gamey.”
Let's start with butter, which is the most common baking fat. Most modern recipes that call for the use of fat use butter. This is for many reasons—availability, price, and, most importantly, taste. Nothing tastes quite like butter, but all the animal fats in this article can be used as a direct substitute for butter, though there will be slight differences in taste and texture.
The big thing to keep in mind when you’re substituting animal fat for butter or cooking oil in a recipe is the texture. If you have a recipe that calls for cooking oil, you will need to first melt down your deer tallow into a liquid. If you’re making biscuits and the recipe calls for frozen butter, you need to make sure your pork lard is frozen solid before working with it, and so forth. Because animal fats behave a little differently than butter at different temperatures, it is important that you take the time to understand the consistency that your fat will be at various temperatures before using it in a recipe.
From either beef or deer, tallow is higher in saturated fats than the other fats mentioned in this article. This gives it a more solid texture and a higher melting point. Tallow will usually have a richer mouthfeel, sort of like how dark chocolate has a more lingering, mouth-coating taste than milk chocolate.
Because of the higher melting point, tallow works well in flakey baked goods, recipes that call for cutting in cold butter, or laminating dough. Biscuits, pie crusts, and croissants are all winners. Tallow also works well in savory baked goods. I use deer tallow in dark chocolate chip cookies, where the extra saturated fat from the deer fat adds depth to the cookie, and there is no unpleasant “waxiness.”
Tallow is firmer than butter at room temp, which is great when you need to fold in cold pieces into a dough. I like to keep sticks of tallow in the freezer and use a cheese grater to get irregular flakes of cold tallow into a dough. If creaming the tallow with sugar, like with most cookie recipes, you need to get the tallow to room temp or just above it.
Tallow will taste richer than butter and have slightly more savoriness to it. If you want to have the richness of tallow and the traditional flavor of butter, use a 50:50 ratio of butter and tallow in your recipe.
Pork lard is similar to vegetable shortening. It's soft at room temperature, fairly neutral, and can be used as a direct substitute for butter. Lard works in any pastry, from sweet to savory, the texture makes it easy to work with, and it is the most commonly used animal fat in baking. Pork lard is available at most grocery stores and many online retailers.
Lard is commonly used with masa to make tortillas and tamales, and it works well in any recipe where butter or shortening is used. I have used it to make everything from shortbreads to pretzels. It’s a solid, all-purpose fat that is easy to work with. I use it in recipes that call for softened or melted butter.
In baked goods, you can use it as a butter substitute at a 1:1 ratio, or fold in a little butter if you want to retain some of the butter flavor in the final product.
One of the most prized animal fats, duck fat is usually associated with savory applications. Like pork lard, it's a great all-purpose fat. You can use it in any cooking method, from frying to braising, and it is great in baked goods as well.
As mentioned earlier, waterfowl fat can vary in taste quite a bit—species, food source, and the individual bird itself will be factored in how it tastes. I have found that late-season birds feeding on fields have the cleanest, most neutral taste. Birds that have been eating aquatic animals, or skinny early-season birds tend to be “fishier” or grassy. Of course, you can also buy rendered duck fat at the store, which comes from domestic, grain-fed birds. This fat is very neutral and easy to work with.
Duck fat has a similar texture to shortening, though slightly softer. It works great in recipes that call for creaming, laminating, or melting the fat. If you’re creaming it, you’ll want it a little colder than room temperature. Use as a 1:1 substitute for butter, or a 50:50 ratio with butter to add a hint of savoriness and retain the buttery taste.
Bear grease is incredible stuff. There is a long history of using bear fat for cooking. One of the reasons for this is that compared to most wild game, bears have a lot of fat, especially in the fall when they are preparing for hibernation.
Because bears are omnivores, their fat can vary in taste, just like their diet. Similar to ducks and geese, bears feasting on corn, berries, or mast will have a clean, neutral taste with a slight hint of sweetness. Bruins getting fat on garbage or dead fish will taste like garbage or dead fish.
Bear grease is semi-liquid to liquid at room temperature, and its consistency is closer to olive oil than butter. Because of this, it’s a shoo-in for any recipe that calls for using oil or melted butter. Black bear brownies have a nice ring to them, and they are delicious. Use bear fat as a 1:1 substitute for any recipe that calls for vegetable oil or melted butter.
If this all sounds a little intimidating, don’t worry. If you can dial in the right texture when you’re baking with animal fats, the rest of it comes fairly easily. Knowing and understanding how fat behaves at different temperatures is key to getting a good result—the rest is easy. I like to start my experiments with a 50/50 mix of animal fat and whatever fat is being called for in the recipe, and then work my way up to a full 1:1 ratio as I see what tweaks need to be made.