I first took note of the duck fat for sale here at the farmer's market. Frequently, adjacent to the saucisson man, there is a van parked, selling all manner of duck- and goose-related products, whole and in pieces, including foie gras and duck fat. I was first attracted by the foie gras, not because I was particularly fascinated by it (although it's difficult not to be a little fascinated, a ban on foie gras was only recently repealed in Chicago), but because of the shear selection; it feels particularly illicit to be browsing for foie gras. I'd never seen so many varieties of such a product in one place. Tucked in among the jars were a few labeled "graisse de canard," and maybe it was that phrase that intrigued me: grease of duck.
I was little tentative about purchasing the graisse for the first few weeks, not sure of what I would use it for, how long it would last, what the storage restrictions would be, etc. Luckily for my taste buds, Rebecca threw caution into the wind and decided to just buy some and figure out the details later. Needless to say, it is delicious, and can be used in all manner of dishes. It is primarily used in the Southwest of France in dishes like cassoulet, duck confit, and foie gras. But the options don't end there. In reality, versatility (relatively speaking) is its most interesting quality.
Apparently, duck fat gives sauteed vegetables a hint of savory flavor, perhaps similar to MSG. Substitute some duck fat for butter in pie and tart crusts, mix duck fat with some blanched and pounded garlic for Gascony Butter (to use as soup flavoring or on toast; variations can be made with shallots and red wine), fry duck skin in duck fat for fritons de canard (though this culinary term can also apply to various renditions), and all roasted and fried potatoes benefit tremendously from being cooked in duck fat.
Duck fat also has advantages from a technical and nutritional point of view. For instance, the "smoke point" of duck fat, the point at which the oil begins to smoke and break down, is above both butter and extra virgin olive oil, though below high quality extra virgin olive oil. Cooking in fat above its smoke point will impart an unpleasant taste to the food. Here is a chart of the smoke points of various fats.
Besides being a little easier to cook with, duck fat also has less saturated fat than butter. Perhaps this fact, along with the health benefits of red wine (in the form of Resveratrol), has contributed to Gascony having the longest life expectancy in France, the French Paradox. On the other hand, with a number of sites trying to debunk this theory, the whole thing (really, both sides of the issue) starts to sound like a conspiracy theory. But would you rather die from a McDonald's-induced heart attack, or a red wine and duck confit heart attack?
The real question for the English speakers reading this blog is "where do I get it?" It is available online, but shipping costs make it pretty expensive. You might try the local farmer's market or butcher. If you live in a more rural area, maybe your local duck hunter can help. Ducks are very fatty, and cooking a duck without removing some of the fat leads to long cooking times. You can ask them for some of the extra fat; their duck cooks faster (and gets crispier) and you get duck fat to render. Hooray!