Despite Thomas Jefferson’s efforts 200 years ago, olive trees don’t grow in Virginia. Erratic winter weather with nightly lows in the single digit temperatures followed by days at 70F — as well as hot muggy summers — don’t make happy olive trees. Anything below -10C (14F) will severely damage even a mature olive tree.
Don’t get me wrong, I love olive oil. And I used quite a bit of it along with avocado oil and nut oils. But in the last few years, I have been switching part of my cooking fats to … lard, specifically home-rendered lard from locally pastured pigs. Here, in the Northern Virginia Piedmont, what other cooking fat is locally available to me? in such abundance? and so easy to make at home?
Listen: I am not telling anyone to convert because their faith does not allow pork – nor am I telling vegetarians or vegans to start eating animals. But if you eat pork, home-rendered lard should be part of your diet. It’s not going to replace olive oil for salad dressing or butter for cake-icing, but it’s a versatile fat, no worse than some fats and better for sure than any of the industrial fats such as Crisco, canola oil, soy oil or corn oil.
From a cooking prospective, lard is a clean versatile fat. Superb in pastry and biscuits (specifically the “leaf lard” from around the pigs kidney), it also has a relatively high smoking point (higher than butter, similar to olive oil) so it’s perfect for roasting veggies, frying or stir-frying. Like oil, lard is 100% fat (unlike butter which is 80 to 85%).
Lard is a traditional food that has been eaten for thousands of years — as long as humans have raised (or hunted) pigs. Even around the Mediterranean basin, lard – and pork – is a significant part of the traditional diet (for the non-Muslim and non-Jewish areas, obviously). Other animal fats were (and still are) also widely used: duck fat, goose fat, chicken fat and mutton fat. Animal fat was important — as (if not more) important than the meat. Fat was not a by-product to be discarded! It was prized for cooking, food preservation, soap making, medicine & body care (salves), leather maintenance, as well as machinery & tool lubrication (including guns). So, yep, lard was pretty important!
In fact, landraces (breeds) were developed for their ability to produce lots of fats: think British Berkshire pigs, Hungarian Mangalitsas, Chinese Meishan or North African or Central Asian fat-tailed lambs like the Karakul. And it makes sense too: rendering perishable animal fat into long-keeping cooking fat is a lot easier than pressing seeds, nuts or olives into oil. All it requires is a cutting board, a knife, a large pot, fire and some time. If you are butchering a hog , you got all of that! No need for grinding stones or oil mills – i.e. no costly investment in specialized equipment needed!
Seasonally, you ate butter in the spring and summer when the cows were on pasture. In the cold months, you ate lard or rendered duck fat or goose fat or chicken fat or lamb fat. In olive oil country, you used olive oil if you had access to it, although much of it was used for lighting.
Yes, I can buy lard in the supermarket – but it is generally hydrogenated – i.e. so denatured that I really don’t want to eat it: hydrogenation is a manufacturing process where the fat molecules are bombarded by hydrogen to change their structure – in the case of lard to make it more shelf stable. It also produces transfats. So… if if does contain hydrogenated fat, it’s a lab product, not food: I don’t want it. Also I do not want lard (nor meat) from pigs raised in confinement and on a diet of corn, soy, and drugs… all of which accumulate more heavily in fatty tissues and organs. For the freshest, purest, most nutritious lard available, I have to make it myself from a pig raised right.
Lard’s bad reputation follows the rise of Crisco. It’s a very interesting story: a little over 100 years ago candle maker (and soap maker) Procter & Gamble was threatened to go out of the light business because of the electrification of The United States. So, they had to find a new market for their cottonseed oil (considered inedible). At about the same, chemist Edwin Kayser introduced the company to the process of hydrogenation which turns a liquid fat solid at room temperature. The processed was perfected in 1909 and Crisco, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, launched in 1911. Relentless (and, at the time, novel) advertising as well as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle all helped the demise of lard and the rise of Crisco. It really was all about profit and marketing – surprise! For more information listen to the podcast from NPR Moneytalk (Who killed lard?) or read the Weston Price Foundation article “The Rise and Fall of Crisco”.
Rendering lard at home means a wholesome product. As I say, it’s not complicated but it takes a long time. We just rendered 4 gallons of lard over 30 hours this past week-end, a fine fall ritual of processing the harvest.
So how do you go about it?
First: you need to source the right pig fat.
Buying fat from local farm which raises their animal on pasture is relatively inexpensive. The best fat for pastry making is the leaf lard, but there is not much of it, it’s the fat around the kidneys and it gives you that wonderfully flaky tender crust. Fat back is all purpose. You can also trim pieces of fat from roast and chops and save till you have enough to rendered — but those may have some “porky” flavor. Bacon fat is just that: bacon fat, not lard. For sourcing, try a farmers’ market or a farm that raises their animal on pasture. For me, here locally in Rappahannock county, I turn to Heritage Hollow Farms, Belle Meade Farm or Crowfoot Farm. You can try a butcher shop serious about sourcing local wholesome meat (Blue Ridge Meats in Middleton, just outside Front Royal VA for example) or search the web site Eatwild for a farm near you. If you are buying half a pig, it’s a no-brainer to ask for the fat. Often, the processor will throw in free the entire carcass fat … because the other buyer does not want it! (ditto for the organ meat, by the way!).
By all means, DO NOT buy supermarket fat! Or from an independent butcher who get their animal from the same place. I once walked into such a one in my area and ask where the meat was from. “The mid-west” was the answer. No, thanks! Those pigs were raised on a monotonous and unhealthy diet of grain and drugs and unable to ever see the sun, exercise or turn the soil.
Second: give your self some time.
Do it over a week-end. While rendering lard is not difficult, it does take take time, lots of it, even if no action of yours is needed while the rendering is happening.
Keep the fat frozen until 48 hours before you are ready to process it. Thaw it slowly in the fridge. Gather your equipment: a large stainless steel or crockpot pot, containers for the finished products. I use quart sturdy plastic containers, no-neck jam jars as well as wide mouth Mason jars – any containers which makes easy to get all the lard out.
I prefer the crockpot because you really can let it go all night long if needed.
Cut the fat in small chunks, the smaller the chunks the faster the rendering.
Add enough boiling water to a large crockpot to cover the bottom by 1/2 inch or so. Or bring enough water to boil in a large pot on the stove. Add your cut fat to fill no more than 1/2 the pot, cover, have heat on medium (high for crockpot).
As soon as fat starts to render (liquify), stir, lower heat and let it melt. Once you have a good amount of liquid, add more fat filling the pot about 80%. Stir. Let it melt. Stir once in a while to prevent sticking. Keep at a bare simmer. This will take several hours.
Depending on how much fat you have, you may ladle liquified fat to a strainer set over a heat proof bowl very few hours, return the solids to the pot, add more fat to the pot as needed. If you have enough for just one batch, let it melt entirely, then strain. Shreds of meat and fat that stick to the bottom will brown.
Let the strained lard cool enough to pour in plastic containers. For Mason jars, you may pour while still very hot, add the lid and ring and close. You may use a finer stainer as you are pouring to remove sediments if any. The liquid fat is yellowish, but as it solidifies it turns very white.
The house will smell of pork roast. If it’s a smell you cannot stomach for so long, then a crockpot plugged on the porch is for you!
Approximate yield should be 1 lb of rendered lat for 1 1/4 lb fat — less if the fat has a lot of meat streaks. After 30 hours we ended up with 4 gallons, over 30 pounds of lard.
The remaining solids when all the fat have been processed can be frozen in small quantities to flavor beans, lentils, chili. Or fed to your chicken, or your dogs.
Talking of chicken, I also made high-calorie patties for them, filling cleaned cat-food can with wheat berries and pouring cool but not solid lard on it. They love it. You could use the same idea with bird seeds to make seed & lard cakes for birds.
Cleaning can be messy: first I wipe everything with paper towel to remove as much fat as possible. Outside (not in the sink) I pour hot water on everything to remove as much fat as possible (I don’t want that to clog the drain). Then I wash as normal.
Third: Use it!
Keep lard in a cool dry and dark location. Light can help turn it rancid. So, a root cellar, a cold basement, a fridge or for the longest storage the freezer will all work. Only keep a small amount – if any – on the kitchen counter.
Any recipe that calls for vegetable shortening can use lard. I mean!!! the vegetable shortening was created to be a substitute for lard. You may howver have to adjust proportions: lard is 100% fat, vegetable shortening about 70% fat.
Many recipes that call for butter can use lard. Again, as butter is about 80% fat (more if you use European butter or homemamde butter), you may ghave to adjust quantities.
Having said that, I use lard in biscuits, scones, pie & tart crusts, and tortillas. In pie crust I prefer to use a combination of butter & lard. Because I do like the buttery taste.
I have not yet – but I plan to use it – for cake making.
I use lard to saute & stir-fry. And roast. In fact I even use melted lard for crostinis – a nice variation on olive oil.
It’s great for hot dressing, for a steak salad for example. And, of course, for rillettes.
But I don’t use lard is for cold dressing.
Have fun! Enjoy! Be thrifty and bring flavor to your cooking. Use lard.