This guest post is brought to you by Ryan Adams, author of the blog Nose to Tail at Home. Ryan did a series on offal and each week he highlighted a different part of the animal that you've always wanted to work with, but were afraid to ask your butcher for. The content has been modified slightly for the Professional Chef audience. This week: Fatback.
Photograph: Ryan Adams
I've written about my love of pig parts in this space on multiple occasions, specifically calling out what about each part tickled my culinary fancy. And predictably I'd go out of my way to mention the wonderful properties that the unctuous pork fat brought to the table. Well it's time to cut out the middle man and get to the real reason people love pork: the delicious, lip-sticking fat. And there might be no greater source of that goodness on the entire animal than fatback.
Pork Fatback Definition and Uses
Fatback is quite literally named: it's the fat taken off the back of pigs, and is available with or without the skin (pork rind) still attached. It is virtually all fat with very little to absolutely no meat and looks like a slab of bacon minus the meat. Fatback is considered "hard fat", which is different than caul fat (leaf fat) which is "soft fat" from the abdominal cavity. Fatback can be rendered to make quality lard, used to make a version of salt pork (which is usually made from the belly, not the back), or used for culinary techniques such as barding and larding.
In its various forms, fatback has been an important piece of meat for ages. The Italians used cured fatback to feed people doing grueling manual labor in stone quarries: the high calorie content kept the workers sufficiently fueled for their back breaking work. In multiple European cultures, fatback was an essencial ingredient for many different kinds of charcuterie and was added to impart more flavor, moisture and texture, or for making specialty bacon. And during America's great depression, fatback was the meat of choice for many people because of its cheapness. Fatback is very important in American southern cooking and soul food. It is used to add intense richness and flavor to various famous southern dishes.
These days, pork fatback can be found all over the place in some fashion or another due to its chameleonlike properties. One of the most well known uses of fatback is rendering it into lard, which is where the fat has been melted to remove impurities and then re-set, producing the snow-white shortening beloved by bakers, potato-roasters, and other fans of the delicious. Cured with spiced salt mixtures and left to hang, fatback turns into the highly prized Italian all-fat salume lardo (try it on pizza, famously, at a number of Mario Batali's restaurants). The French like to use thin strips of fatback to line the molds for terrines and pâtés, or added to game birds under the skin to protect the lean meat. The French also practice a technique called, literally, larding, where strips of pork fat are actually sown into meat with a specialized needle. Pork rinds, scratchings, cracklings, and chicharrones can all be made by deep frying fatback until the attached skin becomes golden brown and crunchy.
Fatback or Saltpork
Many people confuse fatback and saltpork. The primary difference is that saltpork is salted (obviously) and cured, while fatback is not. A true definition of saltpork says that it comes the sides or belly of the pig and not from the back, while fatback comes only fromt the back. Also, saltpork usually has a small amount of meat while fatback usually has none.
Fatback Quality and Purchasing Characteristics
Fatback should be firm and supple at room temperature. Its color should be white, not yellow or gray. Professional chefs should be able to purchase directly from their broad band vendor or meat supplier. Sysco carries it (demand status).
For the home cook, you'll probably want to head straight to your local butcher, an Asian market, or a friendly farmers market pork purveyor. I was able to purchase five pounds of fatback already cut into perfect rectangles from my butcher, though it did take a few days for it to arrive -- you'll want to take delivery time into consideration and plan ahead, since it's not a commonly sold cut. You should also consider buying more than you'll want, as fatback freezes exceptionally well -- not to mention that once you start cooking with it, you won't want to stop. When not frozen, fatback will last about three days in your refrigerator before going rancid.
If you can embrace the idea of using pure fat in your cooking (and really, it's not so different than olive oil or butter, except that it's more delicious), then we've got some recipes ready for you!
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