Oh, my lard!

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6:45 am: Bag o’ pig fat ready to render.

Note: Just to be confusing, pig fat is called lard before and after is has been rendered. Lard is lard is lard.

I’m pretty sure I was the only girl on the block rendering lard on Monday morning. Or at least, I thought it would be the morning. This proved to be a lesson in what is left out of “how to” books. Apparently “a long time” translates to “all freaking day.” I expected this to take longer than making bread, but I was picturing long like The Shining, not long like The Godfather I, II, and III back to back. In fact, it took so long that I timed it in NPR programming rather than hours: I got started during the second hour of Morning Edition (approx. 6:45 am) and simmered straight through To The Point, The Conversation, BBC News Hour, KUOW Presents, The World, and off into the first hour of All Things Considered (about 3:30). Almost nine hours of lard.

Instructions for rendering lard are pretty standard. Once you have procured unrendered lard, proceed as follows:

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6:49 am: Trimming and dicing the back fat.

Cut and begin heating. Trim off anything that isn’t fat and cut the fat into small pieces. Mine were about 1/2” cubes, but I have seen people grind it for quicker melting and smaller cracklings (more on those later). The snowiest lard will be produced from leaf fat, but I think what I had was back fat. What you want to avoid is visceral fat – the stuff that was inside the pig around the organs rather than just under the skin or ribs like leaf and back fat. Visceral fat will end up being off in color and flavor. Put a small amount of water (about 1/4” inch) in the bottom of your pot and plop in a shallow layer of lard. Turn the heat to just above low or between low and medium. Wait patiently. Your blush-pink lard cubes will turn rubbery and gray over the course of the first half hour. Mine appeared to be overcooked scallops.

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7:24 am: Heat’s on. Nothing’s happening.

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8:20: Bad scallops form.

Cook forever and a day. Keep the temperature as low as you can while maintaining a slow simmer. Once the first layer of fat starts to liquefy, add a little more. When that turns gray add a little more, and so on and so forth until you either have all your fat in the pot or the pot is about 2/3 full. Don’t overfill! Remember, boiling oil was poured from the ramparts of medieval castles onto heavily-armed invaders. The invaders didn’t say “Ow!” they said “Arrgh!” and then they said nothing. Trust me – I used to be in the SCA.

Leroy’s fat had a smell. I haven’t found anyone else mentioning this online (although my time to look is limited) but my unrendered lard smelled slightly doggy. Perhaps all fat smells funny and I hadn’t noticed because I just hadn’t handled fat for such a length of time at room temperature (it took an hour to trim and dice the contents of the fat bag). Perhaps our pigs always smelled like dogs and I never noticed because I never got my nose that close to them during one of the very short windows during which they weren’t covered in their own poo. Perhaps I was having a nasal hallucination. Perhaps it was a terrible sign and when I serve my parents and little brother apple dumplings for dessert on Mom’s birthday we will all die horribly. I’m not too concerned, though, because once the fat started to cook it smelled faintly, but nicely, porky, and the finished product is totally unscented.


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9:31 am: As the fat begins to melt, I add more. 

Continue to cook. Keep cooking. Stir occasionally. Watch a movie (or miniseries), read a book (a big one), knit a sweater (for a very large person), lift some weights (lotsa reps), do a 1,000 piece puzzle (the kind without edges), but don’t leave the house (boiling oil is also flammable). You’re waiting for your cracklings (the solids floating in your oil) to sink naturally to the bottom.
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3:24 pm: At last, the cracklings begin to sink.


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3:26 pm: Should it be that color?

Part of my confusion and worry in rendering lard was due to lack of physical description and/or pictures in my instructions. Several books in my house gave instructions for rendering lard. None of them mentioned that though the finished product is white, the hot, melting oil will be caramel-gold. When I poured my oil through the strainer and cheesecloth into my jars, they looked like jumbo-sized urine samples. Turns out that this is perfectly normal. Something else I did not understand was cracklings. My upbringing was suburban and northern so I had no idea what cracklings were until I read about them – and I had never seen them. I had pictured something like what gets caught in the strainer when Matt pours off the cooking oil after making bacon and eggs on Saturday mornings, but what I ended up with after making lard were semi-translucent fat-cube exoskeletons – an empty shell of each piece of fat I had put in the pan. After trolling a few websites I see that what your cracklings look like depends on what your fat looked like when it went in the pan. Sites where the cooks cut their fat into cubes had cracklings like mine, people who cut their fat into little strips got the French fried onion type of crackling I had anticipated, and people who ground their fat ended up with something that looked like over-cooked hamburger.

Strain and pour into containers. When your cracklings have fallen, turn off the heat and ladle or pour your oil through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into clean glass jars. You can save the cracklings as they are or put them back in the pot and cook them a little more. Either way, if you want to use the cracklings, drain them on paper towels and put them in biscuits, on salads, in cornbread, or use them to season eggs or veggies. You can cool the lard on the counter but I put mine in the fridge because Stocking Up said that quicker cooling would lead to a “fine-grained shortening.” When completely cooled, put on the lids and store away from heat and light.

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The next morning: Hey, I think that is lard!

Hopefully it also tastes good. I’ll let you know after we have those dumplings.So did I save a buttload of money with all this work? Umm, not really. A pound of lard at the discount grocery store where I shop is $1.46. I ended up with about 2 pounds 5 ounces of lard, which would have cost $3.37 (probably what I spent in electricity having the damn stove running all day!). However, the lard in the store is hydrogenated (not all storebought lard is hydrogenated, but the stuff I priced was) and that’s just not cool. According to The American Heart Association’s Trans Fats Q&A hydrogenated fats are trans fats – the latest dietary pariah: “Trans fats (or trans fatty acids) are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Another name for trans fats is ‘partially hydrogenated oils.’ Look for them on the ingredient list on food packages . . . Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating trans fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. It’s also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.” Plus, I don’t know what kind of life that pig had. We can’t afford to buy 100% humanely-raised meat (although we could if I could just get Matt to eat a few meatless meals a week, but he’s made it clear that that would be grounds for divorce) but we do opt for it whenever we can. I can say with confidence that Leroy was also a very happy, healthy pig before we (humanely) offed her. So, homemade lard is not a huge savings (monetarily), but it may save you some moral anxiety.

— Amanda


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