Over the last few years, I’ve become a big lard fan. All hail pig fat! It makes a fantastic pie crust, a delectable biscuit and a surprisingly tender cake. I was at a pig butchery demo not long ago with Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman and the subject of lard arose. In the middle his demo, Chef Polcyn held up a large piece of pure white fat, the leaf lard surrounding the kidneys, and said something to the effect of “if only pastry chefs understood the power of lard.” Ahem. I, of course, spoke up in my brethern’s defense. Oh buddy, we are well aware. Little did he know at the time that I had 7+ pounds of unrendered leaf lard back home in my freezer.
I’m fortunate in that I can find a quality rendered lard, with a little bit of effort, in the city or on my frequent road trips through Wisconsin. For a few years, I was picking up 3lb tubs of organic lard every summer when I passed through Black Earth, WI on the way to or from a friends cabin. Then it suddenly disappeared. I assumed Black Earth Meats was simply out – it was fantastic stuff, it was a holiday weekend, there were pie emergencies or there were simply other folks who were aware of the treasure tucked into the back of the cooler. I shrugged it off and hoped for better luck next year.
Then last summer after loading the counter with freshly made butter, sausage and cheese, I inquired again about those beautiful tubs of fat. This time, I spoke with one of the owners who told me that though they slaughtered and butchered on premise, the health department did not allow them to cook on premise so they were unable to render lard as they’d done in the past. I must have looked crestfallen because he tilted his head and said “but I can sell you some fresh lard to render yourself. It’s easy.”
My eyes lit up and then reality set in. We were on our way to a friends cabin for a long holiday weekend with limited refrigerator space. It wasn’t terribly practical. I politely, and a little sadly, declined but my good friend Amanda spoke up. “Do it. C’mon you know you want to. We’ll find room.” That’s all I needed. The man disappeared and came back shortly “It’s you’re lucky day … we slaughtered a few hogs this morning so I have leaf lard for you!”
I was stunned. Leaf lard is the pastry ideal – pure, mild and snowy white, it makes beautiful flaky things. I’d always assumed it was difficult to find. He handed me a large, heavy bag and after discussing the best ways to render these beauties, I headed out the door a touch giddy and with a spring in my step. It wasn’t until hours later at the cabin that I realized I was so damn excited about pork fat that I left our other treasures – the butter, sausage and cheese – on the store counter. Ooops. It became joke fodder for the rest of the weekend.
And this is how 7+ pounds of pure pork fat sat in my freezer for months. I just didn’t have time to deal with it then. A few weeks ago, desperately needing freezer space, it was time. The fat stash had to go. As I mentioned, leaf lard is the highest quality of lard options and is obtained from a large pocket of “soft” fat surrounding the kidneys just inside the loin. It is fairly pure with no veins or nodes and isn’t particularly “porky” in flavor resulting in a very pure snowy white fat, perfect for pastries. There are other grades of lard, the most common obtained from fatback, the harder fat between the back skin and muscles of the pig and while this is fine for baking, the porky flavor is a bit more pronounced and the product not as pure.
Since this was my first time diving into the rendering pool, I did a lot of research and asked a lot of questions. Too much information. I was paralyzed, not really knowing where to start. I wavered. Finally, my butcher friend Dani told me to relax. “Chop it up, put it in a big pot with a little water and slowly cook it down on the stove or in a low oven until it’s melted. Then strain it. It’s easy. But it might smell up the place a little.” Gotcha.
So that’s what I did: I chopped the fat into small pieces. (I’d read somewhere to grind it and I think the smaller pieces would have rendered more quickly so I may do that in the future.) Then I put all this greasy goodness in my largest dutch oven with enough water to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. The water helps prevent scorching as it takes quite a while for all that fat to melt. Some admonish that you don’t need the water if you watch closely and it only lengthens the process but I liked the saftety net, no matter how small. A friend has since recommended using a slow cookier on low and I might try that next time.
Then I put the pot in a 300°F oven for several hours, stirring every 15-30 minutes or so. For the first hour or two, it seemed like little was happening but everytime I stirred, it was a little easier, a little more liquidy. The whole process took quite a while – about 2 ½ hours to render 7 ½ pounds of raw fat. I read that the lard is fully rendered around 225°F and when the cracklings – bits of impurities that will not render – sink to the bottom. At 225°F mine was nowhere near done so I kept going and kept and a close eye one the pot. I suspect this was due to the large quantity I was working with.
To my delight, it didn’t really smell. I think this had a lot to do with the quality of lard I was using. Less impurities = less smell. At this point, I was pretty happy but I had been lulled into a false sense of comfort.
What came next was completely unexpected. For some reason, I had not come close to anticipating the disaster I was about to create. It never occurred to me that pouring warm fat from one container to the next and using every spoon and strainer I owned would create such a mess. All those crackly bits had to be fished out and the melted fat had to be strained and transferred to storage containers. There were schmears of fat everywhere, greasy crackly bits strewn across every surface, wads of paper towels in every corner. I was thinking that the bits would be crisp and delicious, like chicharones, but instead they were an unplesant combination of soft, crispy and greasy. Not delicious at all, so that was a bummer. I’m sure I did something wrong here but I just wanted to be done with this, so I didn’t give those sodden bits another thought and left them to congeal on a sheet pan. Next!
Because there was residue and impurities in the bottom of the pot that I didn’t want in my rendered lard, I strained the hot melted lard through a coffee filter. I didn’t like the idea of dealing with sodden cheesecloth so I put my drip coffee filter into service, placing a filter inside and straining the liquid lard into pint deli containers. It worked but was slow as hell, especially went it dawned on me that the rendered lard was cooling and frequently clogging the paper filters. Ugh. I’m apologizing in advance to my next few sets of dinner guests who will probably wonder why their coffee is reminiscent of bacon. I’m not too sure how long it will take to get that filter holder thing completely clean.
Once I got through this harassment and did some major scrubbing, I stepped back and exhaled. There on the counter were 6 beautiful pints of golden melted lard that turned a beautiful snowy white as they cooled. I had the makings for numerous beautifully flaky pie crusts, gorgeous biscuits and maybe a delightful cake or two (stay tuned for the next post.)
Now why, you may ask, would you go to all that trouble when there are big green square packages of Armour lard at the grocery store? Well friend, because that stuff is hydrogenated, gross and all kinds of awful. My lard, from a happy pig, is 7000 times better, tastier and will make amazing things that questionable square of junk can’t possibly. That’s why. And to say I did it. Check.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: PRAISE THE LARD. Yeah, this was a colossal pain in the rear but it’ll be easier the second or fifth time I do it. And yes, if I found those 3lb tubs again I’d snap up a few. Truth is, it’s much easier (and neater) if someone else does it for you but the satisfaction that comes from doing this type of thing yourself is unparalleled. And this is far and away better than nearly anything you can buy. The only thing better would be to raise the pig yourself. For me, I’m sure that’s just a matter of time.
On this blog four years ago: Strawberries that taste like strawberries – Chino Farms
On this blog three years ago: Almond Tea Cake
On this blog two years ago: Smoky Bacon Ginger Cookies
On this blog one year ago: Ramp Green Kimchi
wonderful things to do with lard: Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble Pie, French Apple Tart, Southern Coconut Cake, Sour Cherry Slab Pie
- Cut the lard into small pieces, or grind with a meat grinder using the large plate.
- Preheat the oven to 300°F.
- Place the chopped fat into a heavy wide pan, such as a roasting pan or a large Le Creuset type dutch oven. Something high sided is better.
- Add a small amount of water – just enough to cover the bottom of the pan by ¼” and place uncovered in the oven. (This is optional – you can skip the water but have to keep a closer eye on the pan in the beginning to avoid scorching.)
- Stir frequently, about every 15-30 minutes. As the water evaporates the temperature will rise.
- As the lard renders, the cracklings (brown bits of impurities and tissue that do not render) will float to the surface. When the lard is almost fully rendered, the cracklings have lost most of their moisture and will sink to the bottom of the pot.
- When the temperature reaches about 255°F, remove the pan from the oven and allow to settle and cool slightly. (The lard will be golden in color, but will turn white as it solidifies.)
- With a slotted spoon, carefully transfer the cracklings to a strainer set over a bowl to catch any drippings.
- Carefully strain the liquid lard to remove any residue – you can use coffee filters or several layers of cheesecloth lining a sieve. The lard will thicken as it cools so rewarm slightly on a low burner if necessary.
- Store in the way that is easiest for you – pour into plastic containers, ice cube trays, muffin tins or Ziploc bags.
- Cool quickly, and then freeze for longer storage. Rendered lard will keep in the refrigerator for several months or in the freezer for up to a year.