Be a Home Superstar Chef (Part 10 – duck fat)

This is part 9 of our on-going Home Superstar Chef series. The previous posts in this series were Part 1 – Good Pans, Part 2 – Shallots, Part 3 – Pine Nuts, Part 4 – KnivesPart 5 – High Heat Cooking, Part 6 – Restaurant Supply Houses, Part 7 – Pork ChopsPart 8 – Garlic. and Part 9 – Pizza. This entry will deal with duck fat.

Rubber DuckThere are few things in the culinary world more amazing than rendered duck fat. This may end up being one of the shortest entries in this series since that opening sentence pretty much sums everything else up. Almost anything that you would normally cook with oil, butter or some other grease will taste better if duck fat is used instead. Note that I said almost, don’t try replacing butter or vegetable oil in your brownies or Little Junior’s birthday cake unless you are a very creative and advanced baker with a decidedly twisted streak.

Most of the time when you read something that talks about how to use rendered duck fat they usually go straight for a duck confit recipe. I have absolutely nothing against duck confit, in fact I love the stuff. But it is an expensive and time consuming dish to make. Who wants to take a chance on something they may or may not like when required to spend a ton of money trying out a new recipe or technique? Besides, making duck taste duckier may not the best way to demonstrate the power of duck fat. We’ll start with a familiar dish, something that everyone knows very well. The difference made just by switching cooking fats will be astounding.

But before moving on to the recipe, a little about how to get rendered duck fat. The simplest and easiest way is to head for the nearest upscale market and buy a tub of it. However, this is not the cheapest way to obtain this precious stuff. Doing it the hard way means obtaining the raw materials, which can sometimes be difficult depending on where you live. One way to get it is to buy the biggest fattest bird you can find in the supermarket and use all of the skin and trimmings as you cut it up. However, if you know of a local farmer or of a farmers market nearby you may have a fresher and cheaper source. If a farmer butchers a lot of ducks, chances are he’ll be happy to sell you stuff that he may be throwing away.

Now, no matter where or how you got your fatty bits it is time to render it into our magical elixir. Just cut the fat and skin into small pieces and put them into a pan. Cover with water, about 2 cups per pound of fat, and simmer very slowly over low heat. That’s it. Just keep an eye on it to make sure it stays barely at a simmer. I am not going to tell you how long it should take because there are too many x-factors involved. But those pieces of skin you are simmering will tell you when it is done. The idea is to let every bit of water cook out, leaving nothing but our delectable ducky grease. When the skin becomes golden and crispy it means our fat is fully rendered. We keep the heat nice and low and take a lot of time so that no solids burn, thereby avoiding any nasty burnt flavors. Cool, strain, refrigerate. You now have one of the most powerful tools a cook can have available when going for the oohs and ahs.

Once we have the fat, store-bought or home-rendered, we can take very familiar dishes and turn them into culinary masterpieces. Case in point, home fries. If you’re like me, they were probably one of the first things you tried your hand at as you learned to cook. After those first few pans of burnt spuds, I got the hang of it and have probably made hundreds of variations on them over the years. You probably have too. In my opinion, it is hard to make them better than these.

Use whatever potatoes you prefer but since these will be fresh fries, meaning they are not par-boiled, I like a waxier potato like a Yukon Gold.

Home (or Cottage) Fries cooked in duck fat

2 or 3 pounds of potatoes, cubed
1/2 tsp fresh chopped thyme
3 tbsp rendered duck fat
1/4 cup freshly chopped parsley (I prefer curly, use what you like)
1 tsp lemon zest
salt and pepper

Heat a heavy cast iron skillet over medium heat. Once it is good and hot add the duck fat. As soon as the fat has melted toss in the potatoes, stirring to make sure the potatoes all have a nice greasy coating. Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring now and then to ensure even heating. If you are using a properly seasoned pan there should be very little sticking. When the potatoes begin to take on a little color and soften add the thyme, parsley, lemon zest and season with salt and pepper. Cook until tender and creamy on the inside and crispy and golden on the outside.

That’s all there is to it. To give you an idea just how good these are, a few nights ago I made them to go along with a couple of pan fried sirloin steaks served with a simple sherry pan sauce, and Amy asked me what the dish was called. She thought I was being a wiseass when I replied, “steak and potatoes.”

It was a meal that I had made for us many times, but the addition of a couple tablespoons of duck fat changed everything. Give it a try and see. Just don’t forget to make up some bullshit name for the dish before you serve it. How could I have forgotten that step?

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