I should admit that, straightaway, this task was a stretch even for me.
In a moment of pure curiosity (lunacy?) and inability to turn down a good deal, or a free deal, I graciously accepted a cooler full of pig fat from a local farmer. Josh from West Wind Acres had a few pigs processed, and had a LOT of fat that would have otherwise been thrown away. I thought it would be a great opportunity to try something new for little expense (basically nothing, except energy to run my stove and the butter muslin I sacrificed to the cracklings). By the way, WWA raises some pretty fantastic meat – pork, chicken and beef from their gorgeous flock of highland cattle. (This advertisement was paid for in pork fat. A whole cooler full.) Seriously though, I felt kind of guilty picking up a whole lotta fat and not buying anything, and we eat very little pork because we bought a side of beef this year and raise our own chickens, so meat is never on the top of my grocery list. BUT I did buy some amazing chops and bacon that my husband stole for his guys only camping trip… I hear it was good but I think I may get more this week and find out for myself.
Anyway, back to the fat.
The pork fat that I got (did I mention there was a LOT of it?) came in two forms, “leaf fat” – the fat around the pig’s liver, and “back fat” – literally, the fat on the back of the pig. It had skin on it. Sorry if this grosses you out but really folks, I dare you to think about it the next time you give your kid a hot dog or enjoy a crispy slice of bacon with your Sunday brunch. If you eat meat, your food once had skin on it and was a living, breathing being. Say thank you to the animal who gave its life for you to enjoy a tasty morsel, and thank your farmer who raised that animal respectfully and responsibly.
According to most sources I could find by googling “rendering lard”, the leaf fat results in the best lard for use in baking, frying, etc, so I thought I’d tackle that first. In the cooler, I had 4 or 5 pieces of leaf fat that were semi-frozen. I chopped them into small pieces, roughly 1/4-1/2″ cubes. As it thawed to room temperature, the fat became harder to cut and my nose began to twitch.
The amount of lard I had to cut filled my large roasting pan about 2 inches deep. I tossed in about 1/2 cup of water so that the fat wouldn’t scorch as it rendered. After all my research, I decided to go with a low & slow approach in the oven. I set my oven to convect at 300º, threw in my watered down fat and went to relax in our basement family room. I came back every 15-20 minutes to give it a stir and the first hour or so was no big deal. After about an hour, my nose started to get a little twitchy again. When I came up the stairs to diligently stir, I was greeted with an intense odor that can only be classified as (not trying to be funny) – melting pig. In the next half-hour I went from twitchy nose to semi-gagging as the lard continued to render and my house proceeded to stink.
At this point, I was kind of freaking out that my furniture might reek for weeks, especially since the lard was still white and solid in parts and there was no golden end in sight. I was not willing to toss all that free fat, though, so I sucked it up, got out some eucalyptus oil to hold under my nose, and stuck it out for almost two more hours. When I had had enough, and the lard looked like I thought it should, I pulled it out of the oven.
Clear, golden liquid fat with golden brown solids floating (cracklings). Now some folks say that the cracklings are deliciously crispy and good for snacking or saving for future use but I drained those suckers into a butter muslin and threw them in the trash. They were NOT crispy, but rather spongy and greasy and stinky and I was over it by that point. My best guess is that they could have been cut up smaller to begin with, or I could have rendered longer, which may have resulted in crisper, less repulsive cracklings.
After straining (photos impossible when pouring hot fat from a huge roasting pan into a small, precariously balanced vessel), I poured the fat into jars. At this point, it really was pretty despite the horrific nauseating stench in my house.
Per instructions from several sources to cool quickly, I refrigerated these babies overnight then loosely capped and threw all but one in the freezer where this stuff should supposedly keep for up to two years. Once it had cooled, the lard turned white as expected, and had the consistency of chilled crisco. The untouched backfat also resides in my big freezer…I’m not really ready to go there again soon!
To mitigate the stench in my house (and particularly in my oven), I ran the self clean cycle on my oven (greatest invention EVER). I also zested two lemons into a small saucepot, cut & squeezed the juice into the pot, and added about 1 cup of water. I let this simmer on my stove the next morning for about 4 hours, adding a little water as necessary. This is a great method for taking the stink out of a place. Luckily, the eau d’ lard did not permeate my walls or upholstery.
I haven’t used the lard yet, for no reason other than that the last week or so had got the best of me and I can barely keep the dishes clean, let alone bake something. There are some really great resources/recipes out there that I’m excited to try, though, including this, this and this. Now that the nights are getting a bit crisper and we’re halfway through August it’s safe to say a pumpkin pie with homemade pie crust will be in my near future!
And since all this fat has got me craving something fresh, here’s a quick salad I made this weekend. Awesome for your garden or farmer’s market tomatoes and peppers which are likely in abundance right now!
Fresh veggies of your liking.
From my CSA: golden tomato (I don’t know the variety, but they’ve been rockin’ for a week or two now), yellow pepper, red pepper, red onion, carrot – chop ’em all up
From my garden: big old cucumber forgotten on the vine, not pretty but still yummy
from my pantry/supermarket: the juice of one lemon, 1-2 tablespoons olive oil, S&P
Mix it all up and enjoy. If your veggies are as fresh as mine were, you will be standing at your refrigerator with a spoon like a late night Ben & Jerry’s addict!