Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Lard Post

I threatened to write this post long ago, but there's no time like the present to do it!

Lard is the fat that comes from a pig, and pigs are big animals. There's no getting around that fact. I'm sure, back in the day when people actually raised their animals from life to death, making lard was much more of a chore than it is now. For some, they look back to all of that work and ask:

Why choose to make lard when you can actually buy it from the grocery store right beside the shortening?

As our food becomes more factory-oriented, it becomes less pure. Shortening is a chemically modified fat, whether or not it has trans-fats, and the lard you get from the store is hydrogenated to improve its shelf life. You also don't know where the pigs came from, what they ate, and how they lived, which are all things to take into account when you're talking about the health of your fat. The quality of life an animal has when it is living shows up in all of its products, but especially in its fat. That's why I attempt to buy pure fat when I go to make lard. I usually buy Eden Naturals pork fat from a farmer's market.

Making your lard is also pretty cheap. This is about ten pounds worth of fat.

This leads to another question:

Why choose lard, or another traditional fat, when shortening is available at the store?
A lot of people might wonder this when they haven't heard of Nourishing Traditions, the Weston A. Price Foundation, or other sources of information that challenge commonly held pseudo-nutritional beliefs. Here's a little bit of information: the diets of your great-grandparents were much healthier than ours today, not just because they didn't eat as many pesticides and chemicals. They ate food full of lard, tallow, butter, and coconut oil. The modern industrial diet today includes more monosaturated fats, such as corn oil, rapeseed (canola) oil, and soybean oil. These are some of the most common oils in the modern U.S. diet, and each has its issues: corn oil can come from GMOs and can cause bone density loss, canola oil comes from a toxic plant and goes through many chemical processes to make it fit for human consumption. (It's also registered by the EPA as a pesticide). The last one is common as an ingredient in processed foods. Soybean oil has all the bad characteristics of soy: it's difficult for many to digest, it causes a spike in estrogen production (in both males and females), and it can be a factor in cancer or IBS. Basically, your best bets for fat are to try to eat like your great-grandparents. That's where making lard comes in.

The Process:

So far, I've tried three different ways of making lard: on the stove, in the oven, and in the crock pot. The crock pot batch was the last, so that's the one recording first.
  1. First, it really helps to have some equipment:

    Last time I made lard, I used just a cleaver to cut up the fat. This time, the food processor saved my hand, even though I still had to chop up the larger slabs of fat.
  2. Put all the fat into the crock pot on low heat, and let it cook for a really long time: 8-12 hours (depending on how hot your food processor is). What you're looking for is the fat to leach out of the structure of the cells and leave behind cracklings. You'll also smell it--a sweet, cloying pork smell. It's not the greatest, and it seems to be worse in the crock pot than on the stove or in the oven.
  3. Once your fat is rendered, you've got to remove the cracklings from the lard. It's easiest to do this by first dipping out the lard that you can, and straining it through a piece a clean rag. I've found that cheesecloth isn't fine enough and lets some sediment through, so I like to use a piece of old sheeting. (I also like that I can throw it away afterward, guilt-free.)
  4. Many folks will be content with packaging up the lard now, but I take one more step. There are still some protein fibers floating around in the lard, so I like to clarify it. All that means is that I add some water to the liquid lard--usually about 2 cups--and stir it around. I then put it in the fridge to harden. The water will pull the proteins to the bottom of the fat, and what's on top will better quality.
  5. If you don't feel like going through the last step, package up the lard into the containers you wish to use, and refrigerate or freeze. If you did do step four, take it out of the fridge, cut it up into smaller chunks, trying to leave out the protein bits. Usually, when you're down to half a container, the big lard "chunk" will come out of the water on its own; you can then scrape off the proteins on the bottom.
  6. I like to divide my lard into the right portions for biscuits, since that's what I use it for most often. I also freeze lard, since it will keep in the refrigerator for three months and in the freezer for over a year.
On the Stove:

Put the lard from the food processor in a large stock pot along with 1-2 cups of water. The water keeps the lard from burning or catching on fire. Just like the crock pot method, put the lard on the lowest heat, cover, and let cook for 8-12 hours.

In the Oven:
Put the lard on a rimmed cookie sheet or oven-proof pan. Warm the oven to 250-275 degrees and put the fat into the oven.  Let render for 3-6 hours, checking every thirty minutes or so to pour off the already rendered lard.

So, which method do I like the best? After doing the crock pot and stove methods and finishing with the oven method, I think the oven method will be my go-to one from now on. It smells less, it seems like it's less clean-up, and the whole process seems more contained.

Of course, if this sounds like too much work you can do what my sister does: she buys lard and tallow (among other things) from US Wellness Meats.

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