Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Prepper’s Pantry: Oil

Most dishes require a liquid element during cooking. In some cases this can be water or broth, but for many types of cooking, something to reduce sticking, induce browning, or aid flavor blending is also needed. This is where cooking oil comes into the picture.

(Note: I'm using oil as a generic term for any plant, animal, or synthetic liquid or solid fat used in cooking and baking.)

Cooking oils come in many types with a wide variety of characteristics. They are generally made from vegetable or animal sources, though truly synthetic options have made appearances from time to time. While frequently a liquid at room temperature, some oils such as lard and vegetable shortenings are solids.


Animal-based oils include butter (dairy), lard (pork), tallow (usually beef or lamb), and poultry fat. In addition to the more general characteristics, adding this family of oils when cooking or baking also provides more noticeable flavor enhancement to dishes. Though they do frequently need refrigeration for longer term storage, there are shelf-stable options for butter, such as those offered by Red Feather and Preserved Dutch brands.

Plant-based oils include canola, margarine, olive, and sunflower, as well as vegetable shortenings such as Crisco. These generally have much milder flavors than their animal counterparts as well as a considerably longer, shelf-stable life.

A selection of oils from the Author's kitchen

I'll talk about collecting chicken fat at home, since this is something that I did recently. There are two main procedures in common usage; the first is what's called "schmaltz" and is the traditional Jewish method, which is done by cutting chicken fat into small pieces and putting them in a saucepan over low heat. Once most of the fat has been expressed, the resulting liquid is filtered into a jar for storage. As a bonus, the bits of chicken skin left in the pan can be fried with onions and garlic to make gribenes, a special treat in Jewish cuisine. Try some on rye bread!

The other method of gathering chicken fat is a byproduct of making stock. I use my Instant Pot exclusively for stock making these days, and I put the chicken carcass, a handful of carrots, a quartered onion, and some garlic in the basket, along with a cup of water in the pot, and process under high pressure for two hours. If it's been a while and I have several carcasses to process, I'll dump and refill the basket, but leave the same liquid in the bottom. Earlier this week I ran three cycles through and wound up with one and a half quarts of very rich broth.

After being allowed to settle and then moved to the refrigerator, a nice layer of chicken fat rises to the top, where it can be carefully scooped off and put in a separate jar for later use.

Chicken fat with and without broth

Gathering lard from cooking bacon is even easier: after the bacon is removed from the pan, pour the remaining liquid into a jar. Once there's a sufficient quantity, follow the method for chicken fat by heating and straining out the solids.

Bacon grease after heating and filtering

Nearly every recipe calls for some form of fat, whether it’s olive oil for sautéing vegetables, butter for browning meat, or shortening for frying potato latkes. Baking isn't left out of this, either: the addition of fat is required to generate the appropriate texture of every bread, cookie, or biscuit. 

Sauces, marinades and dressings call for some form of oil. My wife's home-made salad dressing is a simple combination of equal parts balsamic vinegar and canola oil, with Italian herbs to taste.

When selecting an oil for stove top use, consideration should be given to what's referred to as the smoke point. This is the temperature at which an oil or fat will produce a continuous plume of bluish white smoke. Choosing the appropriate oil can help avoid what's sometimes called "fire alarm cooking."

Be safe, and eat hearty.

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