Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fat Quality

Austrians who raise Mangalitsa tend to talk about fat quality obsessively. It is only natural: that pig produces a lot of fat. Do it right and there's a lot of great fat. Do it badly and the whole pig is a waste.

Most pig fat is so inedible that people can't understand why someone would go on and on about fat quality. But when those same people eat a hog with good fat, it really impresses them - they are normally converted, instantly, into fat lovers.

People who raise Mangalitsa tend to go on and on about how long meat can keep. It sounds a bit gross to be talking about how long meat or fat keeps - it reminds you might be unintentionally eating something unwholesome.

But how long the meat (or fat) keeps is very important: it isn't about having to throw meat away because it goes bad. Typically meat goes a bit rancid, and all you notice is that it doesn't taste as good as the other meat that isn't as rancid. So it really is about that ham just not tasting good enough. Or that pork patty not being the best pork patty it can be.

With pigs, whether or not the fat goes rancid or not depends a lot on the fat composition. If the pig has a lot of PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acids), it will tend to go rancid, even in the freezer. If the pig has a lot of MUFA (monounsaturated fatty acids) or SFA (saturated fatty acids), it won't tend to go rancid.

You probably know this already: corn oil, highly polyunsaturated, goes rancid. You can chill it, freeze it, etc. -- it will go rancid. Flaxseed oil (very high in linolenic acid, a triply unsaturated acid) is even more prone to going rancid. Olive oil or high-oleic sunflower oil, doesn't go rancid nearly so fast.

When talking about oils, people talk about stability - e.g. high-oleic oils are more stable than their normal counterparts, meaning the normal stuff tends to go rancid a lot faster. High-stability oils are a big deal, especially with the phasing out of hydrogenated oils. You need good cooking oil to make french fries economically.

With pigs, it is clear: what you feed the pig in the last 60 (some say 90) days essentially determines the composition of the fat. If you feed the pig stuff high in polyunsaturated fat, you produce very soft bellies, which can't be used like normal bellies: it goes rancid fast and can't be sliced by typical equipment.

Another important issue is antioxidants: if the pigs eat antioxidants, it winds up in their fat, and works against oxidation. So it is good for pigs to eat green stuff, especially certain herbs high in antioxidants.

The genetics of the pigs influence their fat composition. The lean pigs favored for efficient production of pork tend to have a lot of PUFA in their tissues, which works against quality.

If one sets out to produce the best pigs - for something like lardo - there are many variables to control. But if you do everything right, you can wind up with something really extraordinary:

If you are interested in seeing more of Chef Stockner, you might want to check out the other videos of him.

One interesting thing is that the Iberian Black (aka Iberico) pigs that mast in the forests get a high-MUFA diet, and a lot of antioxidants. And their genetics, like those of Mangalitsa, cause them to produce more MUFA in their fat. So those pigs, raised that way, produce the best raw material for cured products: high in MUFA and antioxidants.

What many probably don't know is that when the Spanish raise pigs for the high-end market, but can't mast the pigs, they feed them special diets to mimic the natural stuff. That's not very romantic, but it works.

If you look at the literature, you'll see that Spanish producers try nearly everything to produce pen-raised animals that taste as close as possible to the free-range animals. That's really something. It isn't necessarily a pointless exercise: I've eaten pen-raised animals in Austria that taste better than free-range American animals. The reason was that the producers in Austria knew what to do to get the best results.


redman said...

really fascinating stuff - keep it coming

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