It isn’t difficult to render fat. Learn how to make lard easily, either on the stovetop or in a slow cooker, and why you should.
Lately I have been reading about a lot of people going back to traditional ways of cooking and baking which includes learning how to render fat. I have a friend on the GAPS diet who renders her own beef tallow for cooking. While not following a GAPS diet myself, I was curious, and have been reading a lot lately about going back to a traditional way of eating; a lot of it just seems to make sense to me.
I put off trying myself for quite awhile, though, because somehow rendering fats seemed like it was going to be something very difficult or scary to do. I wasn’t even sure what it really was, so I definitely didn’t know how to make lard. I eventually got over my intimidation to all the new words like suet and tallow, and the negative connotations to the word lard, and studied how to render fat.
Having tried some lard from the store, I still wasn’t sure I wanted to make my own.
Supermarket lard isn’t very good. It usually has other added ingredients and just doesn’t have the same taste or texture. I kept reading about how other people rave about things cooked in lard, though, or how flaky pie crusts become when made with it. Plus, I love mantecados, a Spanish shortbread made with lard that is very popular here at Christmas. So, I decided to learn how to make lard and tried it.
I don’t remember a lot from my high school classes anymore, but something my Biology teacher told us really stood out in my mind; so much so that I remember it to this day. He told us that when he was a kid people weren’t overweight and sick, despite cooking with fats, using butter, and drinking whole milk. He, of course, attributed it to my generation’s lack of exercise. I don’t doubt that a lack of exercise plays a role, but it never made sense to me that a decrease in the amount of exercise was the only reason for the change in the way we look and feel.
It wasn’t until years later that it started to make sense to me. Maybe it isn’t in spite of our reduction in fats that we have gotten more ill and overweight, but rather because of it! Fats have been replaced by sugar which has since been shown to fuel cancer, bring up cholesterol levels, and cause, either directly or indirectly, heart disease and most of the problems that we can develop health-wise. Not only are people finally realizing that a low fat diet isn’t as good for you as was once thought, but neither are the supposedly healthier fats (ahem, think margarine) that we have traded for the traditional fats that our ancestors used.
If you actually look at the profile of traditionally made and rendered animal fats, they don’t really look that bad. They have a high percentage of monounsaturated fats, the ones that are supposed to be so good for you in olive oil. What is supposed to be bad about them is the also high percentage of saturated fats, but little by little they are realizing that saturated fats were likely unfairly demonized.
The problem is that once they were demonized, they weren’t studied much anymore, so there really isn’t much information available about them. In any case, I couldn’t find any real studies that actually backed up the popular notion that they were, in fact, bad. Even at my last CE course about nutrition several years back, we were already being advised that coconut oil, despite being so high is saturated fats, was one of the healthiest fats that you can cook with because of its stability ay high temperatures, amongst other benefits. Even a healthy oil like olive oil isn’t necessarily so healthy once it is heated to the high temperatures needed for frying.
I don’t want to dedicate more time in this post to my beliefs about what is healthy because I prefer to get to the “how to make lard” part. You can research and come to your own conclusion about what you think is healthiest. I have come to believe that the more natural, and less processed something is, the more likely that it is good for you. So, I have made the switch to whole milk, fresh pastured eggs- lots of them, and have switched from cooking with vegetable oils to using mostly coconut oil and lard. The plus side is that they also seem to make foods taste better.
Have I gained weight since adding in more fats to my diet? No.
I have actually even lost a few pounds. I’d attribute it to the fats filling me up meaning I’m less hungry. Plus, I think my blood sugar levels are more stable, meaning that I don’t have so many cravings for unhealthy snacks. When you add fats, you have a tendency to eat less sugar. I haven’t made any real effort to cut out excess sugar and carbohydrates, though, so I’m not as thin as I would like to be, but I do keep leaning more towards moving in that direction. I am at least more aware about what I am eating these days.
So, let’s render fat.
I decided to render lard because pig fat is very easy for me to find here in Spain. I don’t have to ask anybody to specially order it for me, or worry about someone looking at me like I’m crazy for wanting to buy animal fat. I can just go to the supermarket and pick up a tray of what is called “tocino” here, or I can ask for it at any meat counter. Tocino is the “fatback,” or the back skin of a pig with a layer of fat on it. They use it in traditional dishes like the Valencian cocido which is also known as puchero.
To make a more tasteless lard, the supposedly highest quality “leaf lard,” one should render the visceral fat of the pig. This is the fat in the region that surrounds the kidneys. For making pastries, people usually choose that lard so as not to end up with a pork flavored pie. I actually quite like the lard to have a slight taste of pork, though, so I don’t mind using the fatback for rendering lard.
To begin, take the fat that you have obtained and cut it into small cubes. If you find it difficult to cut, they say that it is easier if you slightly freeze the fat for a little while. I haven’t had much difficulty cutting ever, so I haven’t personally done it, but I have kept the tip in mind just in case I ever get difficult-to-cut fat. 🙂
Now, there are a few ways to actually render the lard. You can do it with or without adding water, and you can do it either over the stove or in the crock pot. By now, I have tried all of the different methods of rendering lard, and don’t really have much of a preference. If I’m in a hurry or just impatient (which isn’t really that unusual), I use the stovetop, but if not, I find the crock-pot method to be a little less messy. With low heat, the fat doesn’t spatter all over the place when you lift the lid to ladle off some of the lard.
In the crockpot, I use little to no water because I haven’t had problems with the fat burning ever. With the stovetop method, though, I have tried adding some water to prevent burning, but I don’t really find it necessary either. If you want to add water, don’t add a lot because you want it to all evaporate by itself in the process. If it doesn’t evaporate, you have to find a way of separating out the water in the end.
All you have to do to render lard is to heat the pieces of fat over a low heat. After a little while, you will start to see a transparent, yellowish liquid forming. That liquid is your rendered lard. You can start to ladle some off, and strain it into another container for storing.
As the yellow liquid starts to cool, it will start to solidify a bit and will get whiter and whiter.
You will notice that as the lard is being rendered, you will be left with some solid bits. These are called cracklings.
I strain the cracklings out and put them on a baking sheet in the oven to bake off any excess fat that remains. I love to snack on the cracklings, but have to admit that I’m not exactly sure why mine come out so differently each time. I have had them come out relatively soft, but I have also had them come out with the skin part as hard as a rock. I can’t figure out why I get such different results with the same cut of fat, doing more or less the same thing each time.
In any case, I have found a way to save the cracklings when they do come out hard. After drying them out more in the oven, I then fry them again in hot, liquid lard. They puff up and turn into pork rinds which are different than the cracklings (I’m not sure why-considering how they are made!!), but they are also quite tasty.
So, now that we have learned how to make lard, how about we work on making some recipes that use it?
What is your favorite way to use it?
This post is also available in Español.