Friday, May 6, 2011

Rendering Lard: Another Traditional Skill Learned

Finished rendered lard
Yesterday I finished rendering the fatback from the half hog we purchased in the Fall. I am now the proud owner of 12 cups of creamy white lard. Maybe you're jealous, or maybe, perhaps more likely, you're thinking what one friend responded on learning this: "Ew.". Actually, she responded "Ew?" and that's the perfect response 'cause it is kinda ew and kinda cool at the same time. For me it's the coming together of several interests - my battle to conquer pastry, my fondness for all things self-sufficient, my interest in seeing just how far I can push living locally happily, and my love of learning weird things.

Every pastry chef I've ever heard or read discussing pastry says lard is hands-down the best fat ingredient for pastry. So, it's seems natural that I need a source of lard. There is also debate about the nutritional value or detriment of lard, with Real Food advocates arguing frequently that lard, butter, and other traditional foods aren't nearly the culprits they are made out to be in modern Western society. Wikipedia has a decent collection of facts, though with the role of saturated fat, for instance, contested as the source of heart disease and other ailments, the facts are merely numbers.  As a kid, my mother always saved the bacon grease in a cup to fry other foods later. So, I do the same. I use it particularly for frying eggs, but also other things.

For the last few years, we have been ordering a share of a hog from a local farm. In late Fall, we head to the butcher and pick up our frozen cuts and sausage. With all of our local consumption, I've also tried to be more open-minded and conscious about how the animal is used, as well as raised. This means I've had a go at the organs, cooking them as recommended by any number of traditional cookbooks. Mostly they were okay, though the cow heart was pretty much like rubber to me, and liver is just nasty.

In any case, this whole thought process led me to ask for the hog's fatback this year. The fatback is a cut that is primarily fat attached to skin from the back of the pig. It is one of the two primary sources for lard, the other being so-called leaf fat, that apparently produces a higher quality lard for pastry.  Oh well, what I had was fatback. Mine came as pieces about eight inches square and two inches thick. I forgot to weigh it, but I suspect it was about ten pounds. The picture below shows one of the slices; I had about six of these.

You need sheers or a massive knife to get through the skin
Everything I had read said to render your fatback lard on a day that you can ventilate the house because the smell is very strong, so I waited until Spring. Friday was the perfect day with temperatures in the mid-60s. I decided to follow the instructions in The Grassfed Gourmet, though most Internet instructions were very similar. Or at least, that was my plan. I read them wrong, but I'll get to that. You start by cutting the fatback into long strips, which is no easy task. Bluntly, and this qualifies as "Ew", you have to get a knife to go through the tough skin of the pig. I ended up with a multi-tool approach, using a knife to cut the fat and poultry sheers to cut the skin. I have studly poultry sheers and they worked hard, but eventually we had lots of strips.

This turkey pan was mostly filled with strips in the oven

I put them into a big aluminum turkey roasting pan, sprinkled on baking soda and covered it. The book says to put your stove to the lowest temperature possible and render for 12-24 hours, stirring occasionally. For whatever reason, I read stove as oven, and put the oven on to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. It turns out that your low setting on the stove must reach a much higher temperature, because by the next morning my fatback had barely produced any actual liquid fat. Ugh. I decided to up the oven to 225 degrees and that did the trick. I let the whole thing go for about twelve more hours, I think. I personally didn't really notice a smell. Yes, it smelled like something was in the oven, but nothing in particular. My husband, on the other hand, thought it was odor-ific. The also warned about popping fat, but I didn't have that experience, possibly because of using the oven, I'm not sure.

Fat and crackle coming out of the oven

When it came out of the oven, you have tons of the crackle (read: cooked skin and whatever-else-is-left chunks) floating in this oil. It's not very appealing. Ew. But, I took all the big chunks out with a slotted spoon. When you strain the fat into a pan to cool, you need to use butter muslin or some other cloth lining a collander because otherwise you'll get little particle into the fat. Not good. The rendered fat is a deep yellow color and filled twelve cups of mason jars.

liquid lard strained through butter muslin
I stored my in mason jars

They came out of the fridge the next morning solid, creamy, and white. And then went to the freezer for storage.
Cooled lard is creamy white

The cracklings were a bit weird to me. You are supposed to strain them out, toss with salt, and use as snacks or over salad. I tasted a bit, but it wasn't particularly crunchy, which is what I expected, and it was very greasy and somewhat bland. Not my kind of snack. I've saved them for the dog. Or the neighbors dog.
strained crackling pieces up close

Will I do it again next year? Absolutely. I'm already paying for the hog, why toss out parts I can make good use of, particularly if I can use it to create amazing crusts. The only real work involved was cutting up the fatback into pieces and reading the directions correctly. After that, it was easy. A little bit ew, a little bit cool.

On a related note, I cooked the two smoked hams from this hog during the Easter weekend, using the maple raisin sauce recipe from the Grassfed Gourmet for one of them. A-maz-ing. I'm not a huge fan of maple, really, but the maple caramelized into the ham drippings creating a savory sauce that played off the sweet-tart of the raisins. Nothing like any ham I'd had before, and a wonderful surprise.

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday, hosted at Sustainable Eats, where you can find an assortment of sustainability related blog posts every Thursday.  And at A Moderate Life, one of my favorite reads.


  1. That's fantastic! I've never thought to make lard before. I guess it's one of those things we take for granted. I'm always looking for ways to become more self-sufficient so I'll definitely keep this in mind.

    Just popped over from Feed Me Tweet Me Follow me home.

  2. Crackling should be very crisp. It's good - though the heart folks don't like it :-)

  3. This is a wonderful, informative post and I so enjoyed reading it. Lard definitely makes the best pastry, hands down! I admire you for rendering our own - it's a lot of work, but it sure does look worthwhile. Thank you for linking it up to Feed Me Tweet Me Follow Me Home last week. I've followed your blog, and I do hope you will come by and link up again tomorrow.