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:
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.
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.
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.