Lard is the fancy word for melted down, and then solidified, pig fat.
I, like the mass of my, my parents and probably my parents parents’ generation, knew very little about lard. As stated by Pete Wells in Food & Wine magazine “the phrase deep fried in pure lard is shorthand for morbid obesity.” But for a thousand years, lard was what people cooked with, and there is no arguing that the generations in the past that ate lard as part of a traditional diet had less cases of diabetes and heart issues. So why did this all-natural food get such a bad rap and became associated with fat and disgustingness? NPR featured a segment last year on “who killed lard“, which touts that “lard didn’t just fall out of fashion. It was pushed.”
In the beginning of the 1900’s, lard was big business. It was a by-product of the meat packing industry and it sold well. But also in the early 1900’s, because of the newly invented lightbulb, there was a decline in the demand of cottonseed oil (which produced oil for use in candles). Procter & Gamble, who owned a bunch of these failing oil factories, paired up with a chemist to find a new use for the oil: hydrogenate it and make a product that could be used like and looked like lard, Crisco. This lab invented vegetable shortening was created for one purpose, to replace lard. There as already a growing public concern for the conditions in meat packing houses, as exposed in the exploitive 1906 book “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, and by using creative advertising that claimed lard was horrible and Crisco was pure, “poor lard didn’t stand a chance”. The evidence against it continued thoughout the decades, with scientists in the 1950’s claiming that the saturated fats in lard caused heart disease.
But after decades of getting a bad rap, lard is making a comeback. It contains just 40 percent saturated fat, while butter has nearly 60 percent, and has 45 percent monounsaturated fat (the “good” kind of fat, also found in olive oil and avocados). It is now known that the hydrogenated fats (also known as trans fats), such as in the form of shortening and margarine, raise cholesterol and cause other health problems.
However, don’t just run out and buy a tub of lard at your local market. Most of the commercial varieties of lard are made by hydrogenation, which means the fat molecules are chemically changed to make the fat solid at room temperature and prevent it from spoiling (I’m pretty sure we had the one same jar of Crisco in the pantry for the entire duration that I lived with my parents…). This prevention of spoilage is great, but the process unfortunately means you get trans fats, which puts the bad cholesterol in your body, while blocking the good kind. You may as well just use that uber old tub of shortening that’s hanging out in the back of the cabinet.
The easiest way to get this healthy fat is to make it yourself. Which is why when my parents had their two heirloom Tamworth pigs butchered, I had them make sure to have them save all the fat bits. When we visited them for the Thanksgiving holiday, we spend a day rendering the fat down to make delicious, nutritious lard.
The fat from these piggies came from the butcher in the form of long strips, frozen in a giant ball in a bag. Having it mostly frozen actually made it easier to chop up, as melting fat makes everything slippery, fast.
The first step is to cut up the fat into manageable pieces. If you are buying the fat from your butcher, see if they will grind it for you. We tried grinding it thought the meat grinder attachment of the Kitchen Aid, but since you have to cut the pieces small anyways, it was more of a pain in the ass than just chopping. If you have a decent grinder, make sure to try it! If you have to cut it yourself, have a good knife and roll up your sleeves. Enlist someone to help you. Dad’s are the best.
Then, put the fat in the biggest, heaviest pot you have. Add a bit of water, to coat the bottom, so the fat won’t burn before it melts. Set on a medium-low heat. Because we were dealing with such a large quantity, we used both a stock pot and a giant Le Creuset dutch oven. The stock pot seemed to work the best.
Stirring regularly, wait for the fat to melt. Adjust heat to keep at a very barely simmer, or whatever temperature your stove gives you to keep the fat melting without getting to crazy. If you are working with a small amount of fat, you could wait for it all to melt and be done, or if you have a lot, like we do, add more solid fat as the level in the pot drops.
Enlist someone, like your enthusiastic husband, to help you stir. Make sure to get the bottom of the pot, you don’t want the fat bits to brown or burn.
It took about 7 hours total to chop, melt, and strain 25 pounds of fat. Make sure to take frequent breaks so you don’t go crazy.
Ladle off the liquid fat as it melts. Pass though a fine strainer, cheesecloth or a coffee filter.
Pour in clean containers, such as mason jars. I used wide mouthed pints so the lard can be stored in the freezer.
Once all the fat has melted as much as it can melt, you will be left with something called “cracklings”. They are pretty much chucks of fat that have been deep fried in fat for the past few hours (sounds like a treat at the county fair, right?). Drain on a paper towel lined tray and save for future use. They don’t actually taste like much, but have the texture of bacon bits, but without the smoky flavor. I froze mine in a single layer on a cookie tray then stored in a jar to be added as toppings for soups. Or ohmygod…maybe Mac & Cheese?
Once the jars are filled, store in the freezer or the fridge. I’ve read that you can store it on the counter without issues, but I’d be safe and keep in the fridge. Frozen, it will keep for pretty much the rest of time. It will become solid and creamy white when its cooled.
The 25 pounds of fat we melted down came off of one pig, and yielded about 30 cups worth of lard. The process didn’t produce a really strong or noticeable smell, but after waking up the next day I could definitely notice the smell of fat in my hair, and quickly took a shower.
Use your lard in place of shortening, butter or melt it down to replace vegetable oil. Its particularly great in pie crusts. I’ve been using it with great success to caramelize my onions.
Have you cooked with lard before? What did you think?
And on a totally different note…if you are an old follower of this blog, yes, I’m back! I’ve moved back from my self-hosted site back to wordpress.com. I missed the community and wanted to save money on hosting 🙂