Any time I mention our use of lard, reactions tend to fall into one of two camps: morbid curiosity or thinly veiled disgust. And it's no wonder, given its reputation as an unpalatable, unhealthful "poverty food." For a century, our culture has preached the gospel that this is the stuff of coronaries and early graves. (We can thank Proctor and Gamble, and their poisonous invention, Crisco, for getting that bandwagon rolling.)
So before I tell you how I render lard, let me tell you WHY I render lard.
Simply put, this out-of-fashion fat is high in many qualities that I look for in a cooking fat. By cooking fat, I mean any fat that I'm going to subject to heat in any way at all - whether it be baking, frying, sauteing, or simmering. Here are my criteria:
- Low percentage of polyunsaturated fat
Consumption of higher levels of polyunsaturated oils has been linked to increased risk of cancer and heart disease, impaired cognitive ability, liver damage...you get the idea, it's a long list of serious health woes! Most vegetable oils (corn, soy, canola, safflower...) are very high in polyunsaturated fat. I appreciate that lard is only about 12% polyunsaturated - the rest is about 40% saturated and 48% monounsaturated. (Note that I don't speak with precision when it comes to those percentages, since as with all animal nutrients, the exact profile can change depending on diet and lifestyle of the animal.) While many think of lard as a primarily saturated fat, it's interesting to note that it's actually more monounsaturated than saturated.
- Low in Omega 6 fatty acids.
You probably know this - there are two fatty acids considered "essential fatty acids", since our bodies don't produce them. Both are polyunsaturated, 18-carbon molecules. These are the omega 3 (double-unsaturated linoleic) and omega 6 (triple-unsaturated linolenic) fatty acids. They've been getting a lot of press for quite a few years now, so most of us are probably well aware that foods high in omega 6's promote inflammation, and are specifically linked to increased risk of cancer, heart disease and dementia. So it's important to me that our diet reflects a low ratio of omega 3's to omega 6's. Now it's not so much that lard is particularly high in omega 3's (it's not), it's that the level of omega 6's is very low. If you're like me, you're getting your omega 3's elsewhere (cod liver oil, wild salmon, sardines, walnuts, brussels sprouts...) - but you want to make sure you don't crowd them out by consuming excess omega 6's with your cooking oil. When it comes to minimizing omega 6 intake, lard, butter, ghee, and coconut oil are some of the best possible choices.
The other thing to keep in mind here is that the source of your lard is extremely important. Commercially raised pigs that are fattened on grain have a ratio of omega 3's to 6's that is about 1:9, making its 3 to 6 ratio the same as what you'd find in olive oil. This fascinating study compared fatty acid profiles in pastured vs. grain-fed pork, and demonstrated that that while levels of omega 6's were virtually the same, pork from free-range pigs offered an omega 3 level five times higher than that of their grain-fed counterparts. That's an enormous difference, and puts the ratio of 3's to 6's at less than 1:2 - a very desirable ratio indeed!
- Long chain fatty acid.
Fatty acids are classified according to length, as well as saturation. Short chain fatty acids contain 4-6 carbon atoms, medium chain acids contain 8-12, long chain contain 14-18, and very long chain contain 20-24. The length of a fatty acid dictates how well it can stand up to heat, before reaching its "smoking point". Not using oils above their smoking point is important, because that's the point they start to release toxic compounds, called Aldehydes. These have been linked to cancer, heart disease, and dementia. While most vegetable oils contain shorter-chain fatty acids, lard contains mostly 16- and 18-carbon fatty acids, putting it in the long chain category - along with butter, goose fat, and tallow. Another interesting thing is that foods fried in these fats with higher smoking points, actually absorb less grease than those fried in other oils.
- Good source of Vitamin D
Most Americans are pretty deficient in vitamin D, not even getting the paltry 600 IU suggested by the US RDA (recommended daily allowance). The Weston Price Foundation recommends a much heftier 5,000 IU, and that's closer to what I aim for. Getting enough vitamin D is important, especially in the winter when those of us in the northern climes aren't obtaining it from the sun. It has an impact on virtually all of your body's systems, from maintaining healthy bones and teeth, to facilitating facilitating proper immune system function and boosting resistance to diseases such as cancer and diabetes. Lard leaves almost all other food sources of vitamin D in the dust. At 2,800 IU per 100 grams, the USDA's list of Vitamin D food sources puts lard in the number 2 spot, behind cod liver oil (10,000 IU) and well ahead of the #3 contender, Atlantic herring (680 IU).
- Taste and texture
Lard is a very neutral-tasting oil, making it quite a "user-friendly" fat. You're not going to end up with every meal tasting like bacon, I promise you. It's great for cooking anything from eggs to vegetables. And when it comes to baking...oh, baby. There is a reason lard has a special place in the hearts of pastry chefs worldwide. Truly, nothing makes a pie crust or a cream puff quite like it - delicate but rich, lofty, and flaky.
Alright then. That's why I use lard. I render it myself because it's important to me that it be from pastured pigs - and pastured lard that's already rendered is expensive, and hard to find! So let's get down to the fun part:
How to Render Lard
First, you need to get your hands on some good raw pork fat from a pastured pig. Ask your farmer for raw "leaf lard" (this is a visceral fat from around the kidneys), or "fatback" from the back of the pig. Leaf lard is considered slightly superior since it's even more completely neutral in flavor than fatback. In my experience though, if you get good quality fat from a pastured pig, either one will render up beautifully - milky white and very mild-flavored. Wondering where to find a farmer who sells pastured pork? Try www.eatwild.com. They offer a nation-wide listing of farms, and it's a good bet you'll find a local pastured pork farmer on there. Craigslist, and your state's facebook farm/garden groups can be good resources too.
It's very cheap to buy - I pay $1/lb here in Maine, though I've seen it as high as $2.50 in more expensive areas. Honestly, I've known farmers to even give it away, since so few people use it. I usually buy at least ten pounds, because hey - if I'm going to render lard, I'm going to render lard!
I like to use a crockpot for the rendering, since the process takes a little while. Aside from being just so easy, it's also the most cost effective way to cook something like this. Chop up that beautiful fat into chunks - the smaller the better, since it will render more quickly. I chop mine into pieces about 1" wide. Fill up your crockpot, and turn it on high.
Then just keep checking in on it every half hour or so. Those pieces of fat will shrink right down and start to turn brown, and eventually they'll be floating in clear, rendered lard. It's normal to see some foaming and bubbling on the top.
When those pieces are pretty well shriveled and brown, you're ready to pour out the lard and let it firm up. Set a colander or large strainer over a big pot or heat-proof bowl - something that will be easy to pour out of again. Line the strainer with cheesecloth.
Pour the contents of the crockpot through the cheesecloth and strainer. You'll be left with lovely clear liquid below, and lots of little brown cracklings in the strainer. Set those cracklings aside. You want them, and we'll deal with those in a minute.
Now pour that clear, liquid lard either into jars (which keep well in the fridge, and are easy to scoop out of), or a mold (I use a bread pan). Molding lard into blocks makes it easy to store lard for longer periods of time in the freezer. Since I render a lot of lard at once, I do both - I pour some into jars for short-term storage in the fridge, and mold the rest into blocks for long term storage in the freezer.
For the molds - I go ahead and put the bread pans full of liquid lard in the freezer. An hour later, I take them out and unmold them. Just run a little warm water over the sides and bottom of the bread pan, then plop that loaf of lard out onto a cutting board. I chop each loaf into four pieces, for easier use, then wrap the pieces in parchment paper before putting them into freezer bags. I use my food saver to vacuum seal the bags, but if you don't have a vacuum sealer, no stress. A regular old ziploc freezer bag works just fine. I like to weigh each bag and write the weight on the bag...but that's probably just me being a little too type-A. It does make it easy to quickly calculate how many pounds of lard you just rendered up. For my last batch, I started with 12 pounds of beautiful pure fatback, and ended up with just about exactly 10 pounds of rendered lard, plus a good lot of cracklings. Want an even faster way to render perfect lard? Here's how to render it in an Instant Pot.
About those cracklings. While your lard is firming up in the fridge or freezer - spread those little brown bits of goodness out on a cookie sheet and let them cool. I sprinkle just a tiny bit of salt on them, but honestly they're pretty tasty the way they are. I pull out any large, solid-looking ones, because with the long rendering process, some of these get hard enough I'm afraid I'd crack a canine. I save those ones for dog treats, since I figure actual canine canines are probably up to the challenge. The smaller, lighter-colored bits are like rich, crackly, salty popcorn. Enjoy them in moderation, but by all means - don't let them go to waste!
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