Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Tub of Lard

Poor animal fats.  They have received such a bad name via so many channels, from official dietary studies to playground insults.  The word "lard" is usually synonymous with overindulgence - a kind of trump card that denotes the very worst dietary choice one can make:
"These pancakes are cooked in pure butter"
"Oh yeah? These are cooked in pure lard."
Lard has become synonymous with whatever the hell Crisco is.  Do not be fooled, Crisco is not lard, it is hydrogenated vegetable oil made to look like lard, a true prolefood.  Also, you may be able to find packages that are labeled 'lard' tucked away next to the thousands of butter-like choices at your supermarket.  Even this is only an approximation of the true thing (it is lard, but it has been hydrogenated so that it can stay on the shelf for the 5 years that it takes to sell it).

Do not fear lard, suet, or tallow.  All of these items have a beautiful place in your kitchen, and all can be made at home, from beautiful, happy animals.

A Tub of Lard (or Suet)

- A Quantity of Pig, Lamb, or Beef Fat*
- Water
You will need to start this process by opening a window if you live in the South (or if it is warm enough)**.  Alternately, you can turn on the ventilation device over your stove. 

Start things off by taking a good look at your fat.  Ponder where it might have come from, and while doing so, look for any bits of meat or skin left on the fat.  You should trim these off before starting the process.  Don't worry if you can't get every bit, but there should not be any blatant chunks visible.

Now you'll need to break down your fat a bit, as in a large chunk, you will have no hope of rendering it.  This step can be accomplished in a variety of ways.  You can simply use a sharp knife and cut it into cubes the size of a nice sugar cube***.  You can also use a meat grinder or grinder attachment to really clobber things and get them small.  You can take them for a couple of spins in a food processor.  You can put them through a clean wood chipper.  The possibilities are endless and only limited by your mind.

Once you have the fat into manageable pieces, toss them into a strong pot with a quantity of water.  This amount should be something like 1/3 the amount of fat you have.  Don't stress over it though.  Now, put the pot over a nurturing heat on your stove.  By nurturing, I mean nothing too intense or harsh.  After a bit, the water will start to boil.  This is perfect. Stir fairly frequently throughout the process, and nearly constantly near the end.

The concept of what you are doing here is actually evaporating off all of your water while simultaneously bringing your fat up to a respectable temperature.  If you don't add water, your fat will likely just burn to the bottom of your pot.  Your fat will take on a number of transformations during this time, starting out whitish-pink, going to a mass of greyish-white globules, and eventually...a beautiful yellowish liquidity.  You must be patient and resist the urge to crank your heat to an unacceptable level during these metamorphoses****. It may take from 1-3 hours. 

Eventually you will be left with a beautiful liquid with a yellowish tinge to it, perhaps lighter for beef or lamb fat.  There may be some smallish bits floating in the liquid, these are just (now) deep-friend bits of skin, flesh, and tissue (most present in lard, aka 'cracklings' and delicious over a salad).  Using cheesecloth or some other finely-holed, lint-free fabric over a colander, strain out your lard and allow to cool to room temperature-ish.  It should still be a liquid because you must now add it to an equal quantity of water and give it a swirl (similar to washing butter, this will ensure that nothing is left that can go rancid).  

Place in the fridge overnight, and in the morn, you should have a beautiful, jelly-like layer atop the water.  Skim it off, and put into a jar or urn.  Keep it in the fridge.  

- For terminology, 'lard' is rendered pig fat; 'suet' is rendered beef or lamb fat (and can be used in baking, despite its connotations of wintertime bird feed); 'tallow' is a re-rendered beef/lamb fat, which can be made by basically following the same process after you have your washed suet.  It is more stable than suet and can be used in things like candles and soap.
- I think a home-rendered animal fat is far preferable for those who have sensitivity to butter/dairy-based products.  Even the 'healthy' spreads that have an earthy name are basically vegetable oils gone rancid (also remember that margarine was touted as a solution to butter when it was first introduced).  I also think they taste terrible, don't bake as well as they are purported to, and are ridiculously expensive compared to this process.
- Use Lard or Suet in your baking and pastries and be amazed.  A pie crust made with lard or suet will be better than one made with butter.  You can also spread it on bread, saute food with it, and  make your own pemmican.  Animal fats lend a velvety richness to everything that is perfect for so many dishes.
* I would heartily suggest that you spend the time and $$ necessary to find a quality source of fat (cheap supermarket fat just isn't worth it).  Also, be sure that you don't accidentally buy 'salted fatback' as this is cured pork fat and won't work.  If you are having trouble with this, I would love to help you out.  Message or email me (If you live close by I will get you some myself, otherwise I'll find someone with happy animals for you).

** This process lends a kind of roasted pork/beef smell to the air.  It is nice for about an hour, but starts to get a bit oppressive without ventilation...personal experience speaking here.

*** If the hot water in your house is less than 43º C / 110º F, you will have a real hard time cleaning up after this process.  Also be sure not to pour any fat remnants down your drain, as it will get clogged.

**** This process is kind of like shaking butter.  All of a sudden you notice the beauty of rendered fat!

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