Caul Fat

caul-fat

Photo by Shari Goodman

The pig is truly a magical animal when you think about it.  So many delicious and wondrous things come from pigs: pork chops, baby back ribs, pork belly, back fat, trotters, bacon.  But like all good magicians, pigs have something amazing hidden up their proverbial sleeves.  Something usually discarded and almost totally forgotten by the majority of home cooks and some chefs, as well: caul fat.  Some tricks are too good to keep hidden forever though, and I’m going to lay all of caul fat’s divine secrets bare for you to see.

The first time I saw caul fat used was in a video of the Bocuse d’Or competition: one of the contestants was using it to wrap a particularly intriguing looking piece of stuffed meat.  In my ignorance I thought they were using a string net to cinch the meat closed.  Had I continued to watch, I would have seen real magic in action. Caul fat is actually a membrane that surrounds the intestines of pigs.  As you can see by the picture above, it looks quite a bit like a spider’s web, or an organic piece of lace — and is called “lace fat” by some — with the solid white parts being ribbons of nothing but wonderful pork fat.  When wrapped around a stuffed piece of meat, there’s no need for butcher’s twine or toothpicks as caul fat naturally sticks to itself.  As the meat cooks, the fat melts into it, leaving the meat extra moist and succulent.

As a matter of fact, James Beard Award winner Jennifer McLagan claims in her book Fat (Amazon) that caul fat is one of her favorites due to its versatility.  It can be used to line terrines, it’s simpler to use than back fat, and if you find yourself without casings for sausage, it can even help out there.  Ideally you’d alwayswant to wrap lean meats like chicken breasts, rabbit, and some game with caul fat to keep it moist during cooking.

Good butchers will be able to order caul fat for you, but expect to pay for it as there is only one membrane per pig.  You might also try Asian markets although I’ve not had much luck there, personally.  Before using, the caul fat will need to be soaked in warm water for a bit to make it malleable.  McLagan suggests that if there any funky smells coming from it you might want to add a little vinegar to the water.  Once you’re ready to use the fat make sure to remove all excess moisture by patting it with paper towels first.  Caul fat freezes remarkably well, so if you ever get the chance to buy some, go ahead and buy more than you think you’ll want.  You never know when you’ll need a little help pulling that culinary rabbit out of a hat.

Once you’re ready to give cooking with caul fat a shot, here are a few recipes to get you started:

Chicken Ballotine with Wild Mushrooms and Pickled Butternut Squash Salad
Grilled Stuffed Caul Fat
Shrimp in Caul Fat
Winter Game Pâtés (Venison and Quail)