Chewing the Fat: Duck fat is in, and whether it’s thanks to the nose-to-tail regime or to its redeeming health qualities, who kn

It’s the essential ingredient that makes duck confit melt to velvet with every bite. It’s the secret little something that gives roasted potatoes their crisp, golden edges. A prized possession of French cuisine, duck fat has become the go-to ingredient for chefs looking to deliver that extra je ne sais quois to diners. And as chefs and home cooks dive further into the no-waste approach to cooking with meat, it appears it’s not going anywhere.

Although duck is a longtime staple of Asian fare, it wasn’t until chef célèbre David Chang made duck the star of his string of hip Momofuku restaurants in New York that the culinary world truly sat up and took notice of this web-footed wonder. Soon, Chang was subbing rendered duck fat for butters and oils, using it to poach smoked chicken wings, even doctoring the drippings with garlic to serve as an appetizer.

Since ducks spend much of their lives in water, there is a thick layer of fat between the skin and the meat that helps the bird with, among other things, insulation and flotation. The thickness of the fat makes the meat more tender and flavorful than that of chicken and turkey – and the fat itself culinary gold. Intensely flavored, duck fat is sweet like butter, but richer, even gamier, and isn’t processed like other fats. It also doesn’t break down at high temperatures and has a chemical composition that’s closer to olive oil than butter, making it the perfect companion for both sautéing and frying. It’s the healthiest of the animal fats as well – high in “good” unsaturated fats – making it the choice of champions for those who have grown weary of cooking with butter or bacon fat. And its unmatched versatility is driving home cooks to use it for sautéing vegetables, as a poaching liquid, in salad dressings, even in pie crusts.

Locally, chefs Brendan Noonan and Wes Johnson introduced duck to broader palates back in 2008 with the opening of The Shaved Duck. Diners flocked to what had been Pestalozzi Place, ready to taste duck in all of its glory – from liver to sausage, soup to confit, and the much-loved duck-fat frites: fries that had taken a quick dip in a tub of the red-hot renderings until they offered unparalleled savoriness. Though Johnson has since left The Shaved Duck and can now be found manning the kitchen at his own restaurant, Salt, in the Central West End, he’s saved a special place on his menu for his favorite unctuous ingredient. “It just adds a lot of depth and flavor for the amount of fat that is actually used,” said Johnson, who believes that the duck fat trend is a natural extension of the nose-to-tail approach being applied in most commercial kitchens today.

But this fawned-over fat isn’t just reserved for the plate (or even the deep fryer for that matter). Master mixologist Ted Kilgore first began fat-washing liquor while working behind the bar at Monarch. Beginning as all good things do – with bacon – Kilgore soon started infusing duck’s signature richness into sherry and Grand Marnier after overhearing a co-worker wax poetic about how this featherless bird’s fat went with just about everything. These days, he and the crew at Central West End’s Taste are bringing gluttony to the glass with Travis Garner's Ab-duck-tion cocktail: A rich combination of duck fat-infused Grand Marnier, sweet ginger liqueur, lime, mascarpone, black pepper, lavender bitters and absinthe, it’s a surprisingly balanced and bright sipper that’s sure to convince even the most devoted of waistline watchers that a little fat isn’t such a bad thing.

But despite its high marks in the health department compared to other animal fats, duck fat is, of course, just that – fat from an animal – making it high in saturated fats and cholesterol. (In other words, despite your culinary inclination to swim in this stuff, it’s best not to.) And as for those duck-fat frites, well, they fit perfectly into the American larder philosophy behind Salt. As does Johnson’s duck fat-fried chicken: Tender pieces of buttermilk-marinated chicken dredged in a simple flour coating and then submerged into a low-temperature bath of rendered duck fat for a low-and-slow fry. The result is an über rich version of everything you dream fried chicken will be: crisp on the outside, impossibly tender on the inside and unctuously rich till the very last bite.

Rendered Duck Fat
4 cups

No matter which method you choose, all you need to melt down your own duck fat is the bird, some heat and a watchful eye. First up, buy a whole duck cut into pieces. Frozen ducks are available at area supermarkets and butcher shops. Around the holidays, many butchers and grocers will order fresh duck if you call ahead, but you can regularly find fresh duck at Soulard Farmers’ Market as well. Once your duck is cut into pieces, remove all of the skin and fat, making sure there is no meat attached to the fat. Chop the skin and fat into relatively uniform 1- to 2-inch pieces.

Water Method

• Place the duck skin and fat inside a large 3- to 4-quart pot and add about 1 to 2 cups of water. (The duck should not be submerged; only a ½ inch of water should be in the pot.)
• Turn the heat on very low and let the fat render out for about 1 to 1½ hours, or until all of the water evaporates. If the pot ever begins to smoke, reduce the heat even further.
• Watch the pot closely; once the water evaporates entirely, the fat should be golden brown with small bubbles. The bubbles will soon begin to get larger (closer to a traditional boil), the liquid will turn a bit darker, and the bubbles will reduce to a simmer once again. Remove the pot from the heat immediately at this point.
• Strain the fat through a fine mesh strainer.
• Let the fat cool to room temperature.
• Once cool, pour the fat into sanitized glass jars and refrigerate or freeze.*

Slow Cooker Method

• Place the duck skin and fat in a slow cooker and set to low, stirring every hour or so.
• When the liquid is golden in color, it’s done. (Depending on the amount of skin and fat you use – and your slow cooker – this may happen in 3 to 4 hours or could take as long as 5 to 6 hours.)
• Strain the fat through a fine mesh strainer.
• Let the fat cool to room temperature.
• Once cool, pour the fat into sanitized glass jars and refrigerate or freeze.*

*Refrigerated duck fat should be used within a month or so, though duck fat can be kept in the freezer indefinitely.

Once you’ve impressed family and friends with potatoes roasted in rich duck fat, what’s next? There’s no limit to what you can do with this tasty secret ingredient: Try it in lieu of butter on toasted bagels, rub it on chicken before roasting or add it to baked beans for a layer of robust richness. It’s also wonderful to use when sautéing bitter greens. But who says you have to stop there? Here, a few more ways to make the most of your new kitchen staple.

The DarkWing Duck
1 serving

2 oz. duck-infused Grand Marnier*
10 oz. ginger ale
½ lime

• Fill a 12-ounce highball glass with ice. Pour the duck fat-infused Grand Marnier and ginger ale over the ice and stir.
• Garnish with a fresh lime wedge.

*Try using the fat washing method to infuse duck fat into your liquor of choice. Combine ¼ cup of melted duck fat with 2 cups of Grand Marnier in a glass measuring cup. Chill the mixture for about 30 minutes or until the fat completely resolidifies. Strain the fat from the liquor using a fine mesh sieve, or pour through a coffee filter, and reserve the infused liquor to use in cocktails.

Rosemary-Caramel Popcorn
about 3 quarts

½ cup popcorn kernels
3 Tbsp. duck fat, divided
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
½ cup maple syrup
2 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary
½ tsp. sea salt
½ tsp. baking soda
1 Tbsp. orange zest

• Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
• Place the popcorn kernels and 2 tablespoons of the duck fat in a large pot over medium-high heat, and cover. Stir to coat the kernels with the fat.
• Once the kernels begin to pop, shake the pot frequently, until popping slows down to about 3-second intervals between pops.
• Remove from the heat and pour into a large bowl. Set aside.
• In a small saucepan, cook the remaining tablespoon of duck fat, butter and maple syrup over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture turns amber in color.
• Stir in the rosemary, sea salt and baking soda. Pour the mixture over the popped corn and toss to coat.
• Add orange zest to the bowl and toss again, then spread the popcorn onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet.
• Bake for about 45 minutes and allow to cool. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Duck Fat-Roasted Fall Vegetables

3 to 4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 lb. Yukon gold potatoes, rinsed and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
½ lb. Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in half
½ lb. cipollini onions, peeled and cut in half
1/3 cup duck fat
6 sprigs fresh thyme
4 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 bay leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 Tbsp. white balsamic vinegar

• Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Position one rack in the top third of the oven and the other rack in the bottom third of the oven.
• In a large bowl, toss the first 6 ingredients with the duck fat, herbs, salt and pepper until well coated.
• Divide the vegetable-and-herb mixture between 2 cookie sheets lined with foil. Place both sheets in the oven – one on the top rack, one on the bottom – and roast for 15 minutes.
• Remove the sheets from the oven, stir the mixture and put them back in the oven, switching the rack each sheet is placed on.
• Roast for another 15 minutes. Remove the sheets from the oven, stir and put back in the oven, switching the racks again. Roast for another 15 minutes and remove from the oven.
• Remove and discard the herbs. Place the roasted vegetables in a large bowl, toss with balsamic vinegar, season with salt and pepper, and serve.

Duck and Spinach Salad

4 servings as a side, 2 as a main

1 cup cooked, shredded duck meat
1/3 lb. fresh baby spinach
¼ cup chopped dried cherries
¼ cup golden raisins
3 Tbsp. duck fat
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
1 small garlic clove, finely minced
Pinch kosher salt
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. maple syrup
1∕8 tsp. smoked paprika
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ cup chopped toasted hazelnuts

• Combine the shredded duck meat, spinach, cherries and raisins in a bowl. Set aside.
• Meanwhile, make the dressing: Melt the duck fat in a pan over medium-high heat. When it starts to shimmer, add the shallot, garlic and salt, and cook until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the mustard, syrup and paprika and swirl to combine.
• Pour the hot dressing over the salad, tossing to coat completely. Add salt and pepper to taste.
• Cover the bowl with a lid or a plate for a few minutes to let the spinach wilt.
• Just before serving, toss in the hazelnuts. Serve warm.

Duck Fat-Poached Halibut

2 halibut filets, skin removed
2 garlic cloves, sliced in half lengthwise, plus 2 additional cloves, minced
2 bay leaves
4 3-inch strips zest from Meyer lemon
4 cups, plus 1 Tbsp., duck fat, divided
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ cup Meyer lemon juice
¼ cup dry white wine
1 Tbsp. capers
1 Tbsp. minced shallot
½ tsp. red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 bunch watercress, cleaned, trimmed and patted dry
¼ cup chicken stock
2 Tbsp. cider vinegar

• Place the halibut filets in a covered container with 2 halved garlic cloves, bay leaves and Meyer lemon zest, and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 and up to 24 hours.
• In a skillet or saucepan large enough to hold the filets, melt 4 cups of the duck fat over low-medium heat until the fat reaches 150 degrees.
• Remove the halibut from the container and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.
• Place the halibut inside the duck fat, cover and cook for about 3 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat, keep covered, and set aside for about 10 to 15 minutes or until the halibut is cooked through; uncover, and remove from the duck fat.
• Meanwhile, make the caper-shallot sauce: In a small skillet, combine the lemon juice, white wine, capers, shallot and red pepper flakes over medium heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes until reduced a bit. Swirl in the butter, and remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
• Put the remaining 1 tablespoon of duck fat in a medium-sized skillet over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 minced garlic cloves and sauté until fragrant.
• Add the watercress to the skillet, and toss to coat. Pour in the chicken stock and let cook, covered, for 30 seconds. Remove from the heat, and toss in the vinegar.
• To serve: Divide the wilted watercress between 2 plates, place a halibut filet on each bed of watercress and spoon the caper-shallot sauce over the filets.


Not rearing to render your own duck fat? Pick up a jar at these spots around town.

Graisse de Canard
Gold duck fat
12-ounce tub: $16, Kitchen Conservatory, 8021 Clayton Road, Clayton, 314.862.2665

D’Artagnan duck fat 7-ounce tub: $9, The Wine and Cheese Place, 7435 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, 314.727.8788

Rougié duck fat 11.2-ounce jar: $11, Williams-Sonoma, 260 Plaza Frontenac, Ladue, 314.567.9211