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Okay, many of you probably already know about this, so if you do, go read something else. For the rest of you, try this at least once in your life. So far I’ve rendered duck and chicken fat (fresh from the animal), and most recently I’ve tried — and fallen in love with — pig fat. I haven’t tried leaf lard yet, because our source is a local butcher, who serves only local farmers, so for our first forays into lard we chose what he had: fatback (yes, the fat on the back of a pig).
I have loved and highly respected pigs for many years. For one thing, I think they have proven to be more intelligent than dogs (though with Simon as a measuring stick, that wouldn’t take a lot; still, I’ve also met some really smart canines in my time). Pigs are incredibly hard workers and good producers on a farm, too. Besides, there is just something about their great chubby bodies that grabs my heart. And that I probably relate to.
I’m just saying.
And before several dozen of you write to tell me I should be worried about these “bad” saturated animal fats, read what Sally Fallon has to say first (Nourishing Traditions is a great read). If you still think they are bad after reading what she has to say on the topic, don’t make lard.
Anyway, here’s what I’ve learned works best so far—I’m always open to improvements. I cut the fat into chunks about 1/2″ square. Once rendered, these chunks will become “cracklings”, which I’ll explain later. I’ve tried leaving the skin on and removing it. I can’t see that it makes any difference to the lard or to the cracklings, but others may have more to say on this. Since a large slab of our recent purchase had a fair amount of black bristles in the skin, I removed that part just on general principle. The downside to skin removal is that it is time-consuming to do well. (Photo 1)
I put enough chunks into a frying pan to fill the pan about half-way up the side. The amount that takes, of course, depends entirely on the pan you use. I add water (non-chlorinated) to cover the fat and set the heat high enough to get a good boil started. Once there, reduce the heat and let the fat simmer. This takes awhile, so you may want to have another project going that can safely be interrupted now and then. (Photo 2)
The idea behind the water is that it boils off as the fat is rendered out of the solid chunks and helps keep the fat from overheating and turning dark too quickly. That wouldn’t be a disaster, but I love the look and feel of a lovely white lard. Also the flavor of a darker lard is more prominent, and you may not want your pie crusts to taste like bacon. On the other hand, it’s kind of good with popcorn.
As the water boils off and the fat heats up, it begins to lose its pinkness. (Photo 3)
You’ll be able to tell when the water has completely boiled off because steam no longer appears over the pan. The fat itself should be making fine bubbles all over the pan. At this point I strain the liquid (I use a piece of fine cotton lining a metal strainer) into pint jars to cool. (Photo 4)
I continue to cook the remains in the pan over low heat until they are golden brown. These highly prized “leftovers” are the cracklings. I’ll strain off any more liquid fat (being sure it hasn’t overcooked to brownness), then drain the cracklings on paper towels and add salt. What a treat! (Photo 5)
By the way, I think they might be called cracklings (or more authentically “cracklin’s”) because they begin to pop and snap as they near completion. At this point I will cover the pan if I think the cracklings aren’t quite done; besides jumping out of the pan they also spit really hot grease. And the term “crackling” is often used to refer specifically to puffed fried rind (skin). “Chitlin’s” (or “chitterlings”) on the other hand are prepared pork intestines. Just so you know.
As the lard cools to room temperature it solidifies and changes from clear yellow to snow white. During the cooling process I stir each jar several times with a small wire whisk. This will give the finished lard a silky smooth consistency. (Photos 6a and 6b)
One last note: working with fatback has been the very best dry hand therapy I’ve ever discovered.