Fatback is, as the name suggests, the solid fat from the back of a pig. While that might not sound particularly appealing, fatback can be used in many ways to make food taste better. It can even be delicious on its own, cured with sea salt and herbs. Learn more about this useful if often maligned ingredient and how fat, in moderate amounts, can be your friend.
What Is Fatback?
Fatback is a slab of hard fat on both sides of the backbone of a mature pig that can be used in many ways. Cut into tiny pieces or finely ground, fatback is a key ingredient in the preparation of many sausages, charcuterie, and pâtè, to add flavor and juiciness. Strips of fatback can be inserted into leaner meats to make them moister and tastier. Fatback can be rendered and used as a cooking medium or an ingredient in pastry. And it can even be salt cured and thinly sliced, or seasoned and whipped with salt and roasted garlic to create a special appetizer on its own.
How to Use Fatback
There are many ways to use fatback. Here are some of the most important ones.
- As an addition to preparations involving ground meat, such as sausages, pâtés, hamburgers, meatloaf, and meatballs. Fatback can be added to most any dish using ground meat to give additional flavor and moisture. It adds juiciness to burgers, meatloaf, and stuffing, as well as other dishes featuring ground meat. However, as fatback has a rather high water content, it can cause shrinkage in items like burgers or meatloaf if too much is used or the dish is overcooked. How much to add depends largely on the amount of fat already in the meat, but about 20 percent, more or less, is a good basic guideline. For the most homogenous blending of fat and meat, it is best to grind pieces of fatback and meat together. Grinding fatback alone is more likely to stop up the grinding plates. Though fatback is solid at room temperature, it is easier to chop or grind if it has been well chilled. For best results, put pieces of fatback in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes, then mix with pieces of meat, season accordingly, and grind them together.
- As an ingredient in charcuterie, such as cured salami and mortadella. This procedure is similar to the above, except that with salumi, the mix (often referred to as forcemeat) is generally ground or chopped much more coarsely and, rather than being cooked, is piped into a casing, tied off at intervals, and hung in a cool, well-ventilated place for an extended period to cure and dry out. On the other hand, Mortadella is a type of salumi from around the city of Bologna, Italy, where a very finely ground forcemeat liberally studded with pieces of fatback and pistachios, is stuffed into a very large casing and steamed. When cooled and thinly sliced, the pieces of whitish fatback can be clearly distinguished from the pale pink meat, but they merge together in your mouth into a silken harmony.
- Strips or pieces of fatback can be inserted into leaner meats or poultry to add flavor and juiciness. Certain types or cuts of meat—pork loin, venison, and turkey breast, to name a few—are naturally low in fat, which can mean less flavor and juiciness. A good way to boost both the taste and consistency is by inserting pieces of fatback into larger fatless sections of meat or poultry. As it cooks—the typical method is roasting—the fatback inserted throughout the meat melts, enhancing the taste with both flavor and juiciness. This is known as larding and can best be done using an instrument called a larding needle. Another similar technique is barding, which involves wrapping a lean piece of meat in thin slices of fatback, which are then tied in place while the piece is oven- or spit-roasted.
- Rendered fatback (lard) can be used as a cooking medium or ingredient. As rendered fat has a very high burning point, it can make a good alternative for sautéeing at a very high temperature while also adding a bit of porcine flavor. This works especially well with veal scaloppine, chicken breast, or pork medallions. Rendered fat can also be added to recipes in place of butter; however, due to its meaty flavor, fatback is generally not recommended for delicate uses such as pastry doughs.
Fatback vs. Lard
Fatback and lard are both fat, and both come from pork. But not all fat is created equal. Fatback is a solid slab of fat from the back of a pig, whereas lard is pork fat that has been rendered—that is, slowly melted and strained—before being allowed to cool and solidify again. The rendering process makes lard smooth and scoopable, with a texture like whipped butter, while fatback is solid and fibrous. But this is not the only difference.
While fatback comes only from the back of the hog, lard can be rendered from most any fatty place of the pig, of which there are many. So, though fatback and lard are both pure pork fat, they are not interchangeable. Adding lard to a sausage recipe in place of fatback would lead to a giant mess, and there is no good way to work fatback into pie dough in place of lard. While hard fatback can be rendered into lard, the porky result is not nearly as desirable as the more delicate leaf lard rendered from soft fat from the abdominal cavity. Lard from fatback will have a more noticeable pork flavor than leaf lard does.
While fatback is generally thought of as the two hard slabs of fat on either side of a pig's backbone, there are a few different variations.
- Streaky pork is a section of fat in between the solid slabs of hard fatback near the backbone and the bacon at the belly. It gets its name because it has a few streaks of pink meat running through the white fat, whereas bacon has a lot, and fatback has none. Streaky pork is typically used in many Asian dishes.
- Salt pork is fatback that has been salted and cured to prolong its shelf life. Salt pork is an important ingredient in Southern cooking, adding flavor and juiciness to greens and other dishes. It was also a standard provision in pioneer larders in the 19th century, since it was relatively cheap, kept well, added flavor to meals, and provided an easily portable cooking fat.
- Lardo is a type of Italian salumi made by curing fatback with salt, herbs (such as rosemary, oregano, or wild fennel), garlic, and other seasonings. Typically the curing process lasts for six months or more. Different variations of lardo are made in different places, such as lardo di Colonnata from Tuscany or lardo di Arnad from the Valle d'Aosta. Some of them have received a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) from the Italian government. Lardo, or rendered lard, can also be whipped with roasted garlic, salt, and other flavorings into a sort of spread to serve on slices of bread as an appetizer or part of a charcuterie board.
Where to Buy Fatback
Fatback cab can be purchased at many butcher shops and through meat purveyors, especially those specializing in pork. Many don't always have it on hand, so you may need to preorder it. There are also purveyors who sell fatback on the internet.
You can keep fresh fatback tightly wrapped in plastic in the fridge for four to five days. Fatback can also be kept in the freezer for six months to a year or more, but unless you are planning to render it, it is best to freeze in small individual packages so you can defrost what you need. Salt pork will keep in airtight plastic for six months to a year in the fridge or freezer.