This week isn’t really about making a recipe so much as making an ingredient. And, since October is National Pork Month, this is a great time to write about… LARD!
Pretty much everything I’ve read about lard (rendering, cooking with, or both) includes a preface explaining the recent resurgence of lard popularity, the health advantages (and/or lack of health disadvantages), and the process of slowly transitioning from fear of lard to love of lard. And so, here is my obligatory version.
Lard has been on my mind for a while, both from retro recipes that call for it, and even from the occasional modern source extolling its virtues. Authentic flour tortillas, fried chicken, occasionally baked goods (instead of butter), but most commonly pie crusts.
Many of those modern chefs who sung praises of lard, however, simultaneously warned against lard you’d find in the grocery store, since it’s often hydrogenated, or not all “leaf lard,” and thus doesn’t have the right balance of “good” and “bad” fats. This warning didn’t necessarily matter, since I couldn’t find lard, hydrogenated or not, on grocery shelves around here. (I admit I didn’t scour Columbia looking for lard; it’s probably available somewhere, just none of the stores within a few miles of my house that I generally frequent. Lard just wasn’t an ingredient I considered making a special excursion for.)
My turning point came during a “Good Eats” episode where Alton Brown was explaining how he ensures the quality of his lard supply — by rendering his own. There’s even a FoodNetworkTV clip where he explains how, and also explains exactly why it’s a useful ingredient.
And suddenly it dawned on me where I could get some pig fat that hadn’t been hydrogenated or cheapened in any way — the local source of pastured pork products, Caw Caw Creek. (If you’re ever in Columbia, you absolutely must buy their bratwurst or chorizo, which are the BEST sausages I have ever tasted. If you’re not in Columbia, consider mail-ordering.) Sure enough, their catalog listed “Leaf Fat,” a quick Facebook question confirmed they sold it at the weekly farmers’ market, and a two-minute drive from the USC campus Wednesday afternoon made me the proud owner of four pounds of frozen leaf fat.
The cost is $3 per pound, which is actually a lot less than I pay for local/organic butter. A lot of bloggers who have rendered lard mention that you can often get it free from your local butcher; this I haven’t tried, mostly because I was also trying to support a local farmer. (Plus, I don’t expect to use vast quantities of lard — it’s most likely going to be used a few tablespoons at a time in pie crusts, so four pounds should last a looong time.)
The guy who sold it to me was extremely helpful with advice, particularly since Buzz was standing there saying, “Wait, what, you want to render your own lard?” (OK, yeah, I probably should have told him I was planning to buy lard in addition to more chorizo. Sorry, Buzz.) “We tried that and it didn’t work!” (I thought he was talking about his family, some time before he met me — it turns out he remembers attempting to render fatback when we lived in Indiana, although I don’t know when we would have been buying, let alone rendering, fatback, so we’re still trying to figure out exactly what he’s remembering.) He assured us it really was as simply as applying heat, not too much, over time, and it would turn out really great.
Buzz didn’t buy the “really easy” promise, but we did buy the lard.
When we got home, it suddenly looked a lot bigger. Four pounds of pig fat is a fair amount — imagine four boxes of butter and you’ll have a good idea of the size. Anyway, into a casserole dish!
It’s hard to see in the above picture, but the pile of fat chunks is about half again as tall as the casserole dish. At this point, I realized there was a distinct possibility that, once everything had melted, the liquid volume would be more than the dish could hold. The idea of overflowing lard starting a massive grease fire in my oven wasn’t very appealing.
So, we chopped it in two chunks and got out the second Pyrex casserole dish.
And yes, pre-chopped fat chunks do resemble brains.
After 30 minutes, a lot of liquid fat has started to run off the central mass.
After an hour, there started to be an apparent pig-fat smell in the kitchen. This was sort of like bacon, but without the salty meaty overtones you normally expect. Not terrible, but not delicious, either. (Luckily, South Carolina fall weather is slightly below 80°F during the day and as low as 60°F overnight. A good time to have the windows open anyway.)
The smaller mound of fat was completely melted and cheerfully sizzling, while the larger mound still had a ways to go.
I let the small batch cook for only a little while longer, and then took it out of the oven. Pulling a half-full casserole dish full of hot liquid fat out of an oven is a slightly nerve-wracking process. For this reason alone, I’d recommend a crock-pot or stove top method… however, there will still be a point where you have to move around a large container with lots of molten lard.
The large batch came out about fifteen minutes later.
You can see the cracklings (cracklin’?) floating in the rendered lard — those solid bits that look like bacon. I’d never tasted them, so I was intrigued, but ultimately rather disappointed. Wonderfully crunchy and (surprisingly) only slightly greasy, but there wasn’t much complexity of flavor. Of course, there’s no seasoning or smoke in leaf fat.
Oh well, I was really just interested in the lard anyway.
For storage, we ladled it into variously-sized jars. (I recommend a canning funnel for this step, because a plastic funnel will likely melt. They’re quite cheap, and are useful for a lot of situations besides canning or lard-pouring.)
Cheesecloth worked beautifully to keep bits of crackling (large and small) from ending up in the lard.
It needs to cool a long time, so we covered the jars with paper towel to prevent curious cats from either burning themselves, or spilling liquid lard all over the stove and counter. (If you’re wondering why the lard appears to be different colors in different jars, it’s just lighting and background effects. The darker the object behind the lard, the darker it looks. The jar on the left is probably most representative of the liquid lard color — pale gold-yellow.)
After cooling overnight, the lard solidified and turned white. That’s one quart, two pints, and about a cup — most is destined for the freezer (I don’t expect to use it THAT often!), and the half-pint will wait in the fridge.
I’m looking forward to using this in future retro recipes, and possibly even everyday cooking. We’ll see how it goes :D
A few online sources I browsed through while working up the nerve to melt pig fat in my oven:
- Alton Brown’s recipe (also see video above)
- The Nourishing Gourmet
- A Mighty Appetite from the Washington Post
- The New Homemaker
National Pork Month tie-in inspired by Months of Edible Celebrations, and this month’s cookbook contest!