Fat Separator

When you’re making gravy or soup stock from scratch, you’ll notice that the pan drippings or broth probably have more fat than what you’d really like to eat.  You want the good stuff in the bottom of that glass, not all that fat on top.  But how do you get one without the other?

If you try to just pour the fat off, a lot of the good stuff will be lost, too.  I’ve seen people try to use a paper towel to absorb some of the fat from the top, or use a spoon and try to remove it that way.  Neither one really works.

Often, a recipe will call for chilling the drippings and then skimming the congealed fat off the top.  But that doesn’t work so well on a boat:  you may not have room in the refrigerator (or have a refrigerator) and the motion of the boat often prevents the fat from completely separating and congealing.

Another time-honored way to quickly separate the fat has been to drop a couple of ice cubes into a cup of drippings or broth to congeal the fat on top.  Well, we never had ice on Que Tal.  Even if we had, I certainly wouldn’t have used it on gravy!

But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t get rid of the fat.  I found two “tools” that let me do it quickly and easily.

Turkey Baster

A turkey baster is my preferred method of separating fat from the drippings or broth.  It’s cheap and takes little space to store and doesn’t have any weird projections that are prone to breakage.

With it, you need a clear tall glass that’s reasonably narrow at the bottom. A narrow bottom means that the “good” layer will be thicker, making it easier to suck it out without getting fat.

Here, I’m using an old Coke glass to better show it for photos, but aboard Que Tal I just had an old acrylic glass (don’t use a good plastic glass if you’re going to pour hot liquids into it — heat can cause the plastic to fog and/or crack).  It doesn’t have to be totally clear, just clear enough that you can see the dividing line between the fat and other liquid.

You don't want a lot of fat in your gravy or soup stock. How can you separate it quickly without sticking it in the refrigerator and waiting it to congeal?The method is pretty simple:

  1. Pour the liquid to be separated into the glass.
  2. Wait a minute or two for the fat to rise to the top.
  3. Squeeze the bulb of the turkey baster to expel the air BEFORE sticking the baster into the liquid.
  4. Put the baster into the liquid, all the way to the bottom.
  5. Release the bulb and draw in the de-fatted liquid.
  6. Put the baster over a bowl or pan and squeeze the bulb to release the “good stuff.”
  7. Repeat steps 3 to 6 until nothing but fat remains in the glass.  Discard the fat.

While it’s possible to buy turkey basters costing $20 or more, you can buy a perfectly serviceable one at any big supermarket or discount store for $2 to $3 — and often the dollar stores have them, too.  On a boat, plastic beats glass. I prefer one that’s clear or only slightly opaque so I can see into it when I’m cleaning it.

To clean, the bulb on top comes off.  I typically put a few drops of dish soap down in it, pour in some warm water and use my bottle brush.  Some basters come with their own “special” cleaning brush, but I’ve never opted for these — my regular brush has worked just fine and it’s one less thing to store.

If I can’t get something out this way, lay it down in a pan of water to cover the baster and stick a denture tablet inside the baster and wait 10 minutes or so, then run the bottle brush through it again. See Cleaning with Denture Tablets for more ways to use them.

The biggest problem I’ve had with the turkey baster method is keeping a turkey baster for kitchen use.  We have this rule, you see, that the seaworthiness of the boat trumps the galley.  So Dave swiped my first one for the tool box — without the bulb, it made a great funnel extender for hard to reach, small fill ports on the transmission and autopilot (he stuck the tip of the regular funnel into the big end).  More than once, he used it to get the last bit of water out of a sump (the stuffing box and gray water are the two I recall) so he could see something better.

The good news is that even in Mexico and Central America, you can buy turkey basters in most grocery stores in medium-sized towns — and for a reasonable price.

You don't want a lot of fat in your gravy or soup stock. How can you separate it quickly without sticking it in the refrigerator and waiting it to congeal?Fat Separator

A slightly easier way is to use a fat separator, such as that shown at right.  I like the turkey baster method a little better primarily due to space considerations, but this also works well (I had one when living ashore) and if you have the storage space, it’s a good option.

To use this type, you pour the liquid into the cup, let it settle, and then pour the “good stuff” back into your pan or bowl through the spout.  Since the spout comes from the bottom of the cup, the good stuff comes out first.  Stop pouring when the fat starts coming out, and discard the fat.

The one above shows the principle well, but don’t buy one with such a vulnerable spout to use on a boat — see my recommendation below if you want this style!

While these are a little easier to use than the turkey baster method, they are larger to store (although they can be used as a measuring cup) and the spout on mine cracked during some (very) rough weather.  I had it in a locker where there was also some canned food and one of the cans got loose and broke it.  My fault — I should have protected it better — but see my recommendation for a separator that is less vulnerable.

Now you know why there’s no picture of mine — after it broke, I couldn’t find another in Mexico . . . but I could find a turkey baster! And that’s what I’ve used ever since.

These are also easier to clean than a turkey baster, either with hot soapy water or a denture tablet.

These generally cost in the $5 to $10 range, but some models go as high as $30.  One with a strainer over the top (that you pour the liquid into the cup through) is useful, but most other features just aren’t that useful, particularly on a boat (none of the storage lids seal sufficiently for a boat refrigerator, for example).

You don't want a lot of fat in your gravy or soup stock. How can you separate it quickly without sticking it in the refrigerator and waiting it to congeal?My favorite is the SoftWorks 2-cup fat separator shown at right.:

  • The two cup size is a good compromise between usability and necessary storage space.
  • It has a good strainer on the top — the holes are small enough to filter out the big stuff, but not so small that they constantly clog.
  • “SoftWorks” is another name for OXO Good Grips, and they are known for producing good products at a reasonable price.
  • Non-slip ergonomic handle makes it easy to hold on a moving boat — even if some of the greasy liquid gets on the handle.

You don't want a lot of fat in your gravy or soup stock. How can you separate it quickly without sticking it in the refrigerator and waiting it to congeal?You can also get fat separators that have an opening in the bottom — you squeeze the handle and a valve opens, pouring the “good stuff” out the bottom.

I find these harder to use and more prone to leakage or failure — and even the least expensive models are $15 or more!  And I’m not the only one who has problems with these — many models get poor reviews on Amazon, too!

Another real disadvantage of this style is that the valve assembly can be hard to thoroughly clean and you can end up with rancid fat in the opening if you’re not scrupulous in your cleaning.

For these reasons, I just don’t recommend this style.

Do you have a different method of separating the fat that works well on your boat?  Share it with the rest of us, please!

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