Traditional fats are an important part of our daily nutrition. They contain fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients that we can’t get from other sources. They also contain the fatty-acids that are needed for some vitamins to be absorbed by our bodies.
There are lots of fats and oils on the market today. Some good and some not so good. But how do you know what the “good” fats are?
I would argue that the “good” fats are the ones people have been eating since the beginning.
So today we’re going to talk a bit about the fats that are included in a traditional foods diet.
And those would be natural, minimally processed fats.
These include butter and ghee from grass-fed dairy animals, lard from pastured pork, tallow from grass-fed cows and sheep, and schmaltz from pastured and wild poultry.
While olive and coconut oils are not necessarily traditional fats in the US (though currently there are some olive groves and producers in California and Arizona), they are in other cultures and so I have included them here.
No hydrogenated shortening, corn oil, vegetable oil, canola oil, or soy oil. And I’m not including nut or seed oils because they don’t actually last very long before going rancid.
Basically, anything that has to be made in a factory with chemicals is not something we should be putting into our bodies.
But I’m not afraid of healthy fats and use them frequently.
Below is a list of traditional fats that have been used for cooking and baking for thousands of years, and what they are best suited for. These are the fats that I use everyday.
Animal Based Traditional Fats
Plain ole butter is probably the best known of the traditional fats.
Butter is made by skimming the cream off milk from a dairy animal and shaking or churning it until the milk fats have come together and the whey has been separated out. The butter is then washed to make sure all the whey has been removed.
Traditionally, butter was salted to help preserve it for longer storage. “Sweet cream butter” has little to no salt. You can find both salted and unsalted butter in most grocery stores today.
The most nutritious butter is made from raw cream from grass fed dairy animals.
Clarified, or Drawn Butter
Clarified butter is made by melting butter and simmering at a low temperature until all the water has evaporated and the fat has separated from the milk solids.
The fat is ladled off and the milk solids are discarded. Clarified butter will last slightly longer than regular butter at room temperature.
Clarified butter is great for sautéing or frying.
Ghee is used frequently in Indian cuisine, and is a great way to preserve butter if your freezer space is at a premium because it is shelf stable.
To make ghee, butter is melted over low heat without stirring. Ghee goes one step further than clarified butter by simmering for a longer period with the milk solids until they have caramelized.
That caramelization gives ghee its characteristic nutty flavor. Ghee is a beautiful amber color when liquid, and soft yellow after it cools and solidifies.
Properly made ghee is shelf stable at room temperature for at least 3 months, and in cold storage (like a root cellar) for up to a year.
Ghee is solid at room temperature and can be used in baking where a recipe calls for shortening or butter. It can also be used for frying because it has a high smoke point. (See table for smoke point comparisons)
You can also use ghee just as you would butter for spreading on toast or putting in oatmeal, etc.
I make ghee about four times a year in my crockpot from homemade butter, but it works just as well with butter from the store.
One pound of butter gives you about a pint of ghee. I like to put it in wide mouth pint canning jars.
I keep one in the cupboard by my stove, and the others I put in cold storage.
Lard was once a dietary staple in family farms all over the world. For the past decade or so, it has been held in low esteem in the food world. Lately, though, lard has been making a comeback.
Lard is rendered from the fat of hogs and is easily processed at home. The best lard, called leaf lard, is from the fat around the kidneys.
This lard is white, silky, and odorless and can be used in any recipe that calls for shortening or butter and is particularly good for pie crusts, tart shells, and biscuits.
Other pork fat rendered into lard will have a slight taste that is better for savory dishes.
All lard has a high smoke point (see table for smoke point comparisons) and is good for frying.
It is my go-to fat for frying chicken or French fries. Lard can also be used for soap and candle making.
Rendering lard can be a smelly process, so I try to do it in bulk and use my crockpots and put them in the garage.
I store lard in quart sized canning jars inside a dark cupboard.
Properly rendered lard is shelf stable at room temperature for several months and for several years in cold storage if it is well sealed.
Bacon grease can be lumped into the lard category, although it isn’t very pure and doesn’t last for months. I remember the grease can always sitting at the back of the stove when I was growing up.
After the bacon was cooked, the grease was poured into the top where there was a filter.
The filtered fat was used for frying eggs, pork chops, cubed steak…pretty much anything that needed frying.
Duck fat, goose fat, and chicken fat all fall under the same name: Schmaltz. The fat is rendered to remove impurities and make it shelf stable.
It has a definite flavor to it and is best used for frying or for savory baking. Think crust for a chicken pot pie, or maybe dumplings.
Tallow is another fat that has fallen out of favor in the past few decades. Made from rendering the suet of beef, sheep, deer, elk, and moose, it is also shelf stable at room temperature.
If properly sealed, tallow will last for several years in cold storage.
Making tallow can also be a bit smelly just like lard. I also do this in the garage in my crockpots. And like lard, I store it in quart canning jars in a dark cupboard.
Tallow is great for frying and can be filtered and reused multiple times. And on the rare occasions when I deep fry something, I use tallow.
Plant Based Traditional Fats
Generally, coconut oil is produced by 2 different methods.
One method uses dried coconut meat (called copra) and presses the oil out of it. This is the “expeller pressed” method.
Depending on how the copra is dried, sometimes this oil has to be cleaned and deodorized.
The other method is called “wet-milling”.
In this method, the fresh coconut is pressed to remove the coconut milk, and then pressed again to produce coconut water and oil mixed.
The oil is then separated from the water through a number of ways which include boiling, refrigeration, and using a centrifuge.
Coconut oil is shelf stable at room temperature and melts at 73°F. It can be used for frying (makes great French fries), and for baking as either a solid or a liquid fat.
Some processing methods produce an oil that is neutral in taste, while others are not.
Olive oil is made by grinding olives along with their pits into a paste and then pressing the oil out.
Sometimes water is mixed in so that the oil floats and is then drained off. The remaining paste (called pomace) is then usually processed further to extract more oil, often using chemicals.
Extra virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil are made from the first pressing and without any chemicals. Within these designations are other grades, but if you stick with one of those you are getting a healthy oil.
Extra virgin oil has a stronger flavor and aroma and is best used in salad dressings and for drizzling over food, while virgin olive oil is milder and can be used in cooking as well as sautéing and pan frying over medium heat.
Fat Smoke Point Comparison and Use Chart
|Type of Fat||Smoke Point*||Uses|
|Butter||280 – 350°F||Baking, cooking|
|Clarified or Drawn Butter||450 – 485°F||Baking, frying, sautéing|
|Coconut Oil||350°F||Sautéing, baking|
|Ghee||450 – 485°F||Baking, frying, sautéing|
|Lard||340 – 390°F||Baking, frying, candles, soap|
|Olive Oil, Extra Virgin||320 – 410°F||Sautéing, salad dressing, drizzling|
|Schmaltz||340 – 390°F||Frying|
|Tallow||370 – 420°F||Savory baking, frying, candles, soap|
*the temperature range depends on purity