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The Forgotten Craft of Rendering Lard

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When I first heard the term “render lard”, I can’t tell you how many visions of difficulty swelled up in my head. I imagined a long, labor-intensive process that would leave me frustrated and my kitchen a mess, stinking of pork. What was surprising to learn is that none of those things happened.

I didn’t grow up loving the kitchen or having an appreciation for cooking, so I spent a good part of my adult life fearing the idea of preparing food.  It wasn’t my fault, I was as much a product of our society as anyone else, having purchased and eaten convenience foods a good portion of my years. As a result, I believed that cooking was something I’d never be able to do.

What’s even more astonishing to me is that cooking is really much more enjoyable than I ever imagined, and although it takes some planning, thought, and preparation, it it especially satisfying when I have a family (and friends who like food) to prepare meals and nourishing foods for on a regular basis.

Lard is a substance, I find, when mentioning to most people, they are shocked that I would talk about it in the same sentence as “healthy”.  And yet lard is older, by far, than any of the so-called “healthy” fats we are recommended to cook with in modern cookbooks and recipes.

Despite the gasps and mouth-covering motions of some who might read this, I wanted to share my experience in delving into creating this exceptionally nutritious (yes, nutritious) and versatile food. If I were to follow the advice of today’s health experts, I’d use canola oil, margarine, shortening, or some other artificial fat that has only been around since the time just after the Industrial Revolution – which is about 120 years or so. Not only is it unhealthy and disease-inducing due to its distinct lack of nutrients from  industrial processing, but its flavor is severely lacking.

Lard in history around the world

Since the advent of convenient but industrially-produced shortening, margarine, and vegetable oils over 10 decades ago, lard has remained in the doghouse with those who consider themselves to be “health experts”. All this time, health communities have lauded health benefits of fake fats to consumers while criminalizing the use of lard or beef fat for any purpose. Funny that, since people used it all over the world for myriad purposes – cooking, soap, and candle-making, across history and to the credit of people’s survival and health. If you read back over any thorough and accurate history of medicine in this country, you’ll find that heart disease was pretty rare until the 1920s – just a few years after the appearance of artificial fats on the consumer market.

Regardless of its unseemly reputation, lard is a gorgeous food. There are so many uses for it, it’s hard to know where to begin. All across the Old World In European countries like Britain, Italy, France, Hungary, Romania, Germany, Poland, The Czech Republic, and Scandinavian countries, people used lard in everyday cooking from desserts to casseroles to pate, in the preservation of pickles and vegetables, in doughs, to being spread on bread with paprika.

Lard was used especially in places where dairy products were scarce.  In Japan and China it has been used mixed in with rice and soy sauce. Just like in European and Asian countries, lard has also been historically used for generations on the North American continent in the U.S., Canadian provinces and territories, and in Mexico in seasonal dishes, to season meats and vegetables, stews, one-pot meals, in beans and rice. Similar uses have been employed in South America, Africa, New Zealand, and Australia as a foundational staple for all types of cooking.

Health benefits of lard

Lard from hogs on pasture is a rich source of Vitamin D, something the majority of the population is sorely lacking in. Many people don’t know that as well as containing healthy saturated fat and cholesterol – which our bodies need to maintain skin, brain, and immune health, it’s also a good way to get monounsaturated fats which are known for their cardiovascular benefits and also found in healthy foods such as red meat, whole milk, olive oil, avocados, and nuts.

Lard on the prairie

Ma Ingalls always used lard or suet (tallow from beef) to make hash-browned or fried potatoes, pancakes, crackers, doughnuts, vegetables, fried chicken, and to bake pie crusts.  She would prepare the food in big iron pots on the wood cookstove using lard or drippings, or use in her baking for the oven. She knew that aside from its versatility, this useful substance was loaded with essential nutrients that would keep her family healthy.

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From The Little House Cookbook:

“Pigs are still family farm favorites because they demand so little and and offer so much. ‘Everything is useful’, goes the saying, ‘but the squeal’.”

“Pork, ham, spareribs, bacon, salt pork, headcheese, and lard – these are all gifts from the pig. How they tasted and appeared in Laura’s youth we can only imagine, for all the swine now considered traditional American breeds have been developed since that time. That they were different from ours we can be sure, by contrasting the home-cured and commercially cured bacons of today or the hams of corn-fed hogs with those of peanut fed-hogs. One certainty is that our pigs are leaner than their forebears.”

Where can I find lard?

Pig fat is cheap or sometimes free, and if you know where to look, easy to come by. But please, however, don’t buy lard you find in the grocery store. These foods are actually artificially produced and hydrogenated to improve shelf life, and aren’t much better for you than the artificial fats we talked about before (also many of which are hydrogenated, rancid, full of GMOs, or both).

So where do you find healthy fat from hogs on pasture? Why, from your local farmer, of course.  Be sure to ask your farmer how he or she raises the hogs – they should have access to pasture where they can eat roots, leaves, vegetation from trees (including some fruit, nuts, or vegetables) and if supplemented with feed it should be organic or sustainable feed that doesn’t include soy or corn. Farmers who feed their pigs leftover yogurt and soured milk are doing their pigs a great service as well – which makes the meat and the fat gloriously healthy to consume because of beneficial bacteria obtained from healthy, raw milk.

How to render pork fat into lard:

This is much easier to do if the fat is still frozen, but will take longer to render. But the time spent rendering is that which you will have to spend little effort doing anything other than checking the progress of the lard.

We put our pork fat chunks in the crockpot because it can then reduce down for hours and it won’t have to be monitored as it would on the stove. If you decide to use a heavy stockpot on your stovetop, the process will take less time.

Lard – a great convenience food

Rendering lard is incredibly easy.  In this post, I have provided instructions for rendering lard both on the stovetop and in a crockpot. I find the crockpot method to be even more convenient than the stove method. Besides bone broth, I find rendering lard in a crockpot to be one of the easiest convenience foods in existence (how’s that for bucking the ideology of fast-food!).

If you have a bag of pork fat, the only other thing you’ll need is a 1/2 cup to 1 cup of filtered water to get going.

Equipment you’ll need:

  • Large stockpot
  • Fine mesh sieve and/or cheesecloth
  • Wide-mouth jars for storing lard (Mason) – for one bag of pork fat (1 – 2 pounds), you’ll need anywhere from 2 -3 quart sized jars, approximately 1 jar per pound.

Directions for rendering lard on the stovetop:

  1. Trim pork fat with a sharp knife to remove any meat or red areas.
  2. Cut the trimmed fat into cubes anywhere from 1/2 inch to 1 inch in size.
  3. Place the fat and filtered water in the stock-pot on your stove. Turn heat up to medium heat and bring to a simmer while stirring from time to time.
  4. After the fat has simmered for 45 minutes to about one hour, you will notice the water has evaporated and the fat has started melting. You will see bits of fat floating to the top – cracklings.
  5. Keep stirring occasionally. Soon all the fat pieces or cracklings will sink to the bottom of the pot. At this point, take the pot off from the heat.
  6. You will want a fine mesh sieve for pouring the lard through into wide-mouthed glass jars used for jarring. You can also use real cotton cheesecloth layered on top of the sieve when pouring from pot to jar. If desired, save cracklings to eat or use for other cooking purposes. (Laura and Mary Ingalls used to love the cracklings; Ma would save out for them from her rendered lard. It was a special treat!). Just add salt and then store in your refrigerator until ready for use.
  7. Use care when pouring the melted fat (which is a transparent, golden-brown) into jars, and wipe any spills up right away to prevent caking of the lard after hardening.  Cover jars immediately. The heat from the lard will suck out all the oxygen and “seal” your jars for storage.
  8. Allow the lard to cool. You’ll know when it’s finished because the appearance will turn from golden-brown into an opaque, creamy white-looking substance.
  9. Store unopened jars of lard in the cupboard, and opened ones in the refrigeration to prevent mold from developing in the jar.

You can use your lard in desserts like pastries and pies or for cooking scrambling eggs, cooking meats, stews, soups, casseroles, or for sauteing vegetables. The sky’s the limit for this wonderful food!

Directions for rendering lard with a crockpot:

  1. Put cubed pork fat with water in the crockpot and turn the heat up on “High” for the shortest time. Our crockpot setting has 4 or 6 hours for “High” time.  If the fat you are using is frozen, set it on the longer cooking time.
  2. Keep a watch on the fat you are melting in the crockpot – it can take longer – perhaps 4-6 hours or more – but may be ready sooner than that. It all depends on how high the heat is on your appliance and how much fat you are rendering at once.
  3. After the high heat has switched automatically over to low heat, check the fat for signs of browning and floating to the top.
  4. When all the fat particles have completely browned, they will sink to the bottom, just as if you used the pot on the stove.
  5. Follow the directions above for pouring, draining, and storing your lard.

We got about 8 sizeable bags of pork fat for free from our farmer after buying part of a side of pork last fall. Each bag we rendered made anywhere from 3 to 5 jars of lard, and was 3 1/2 to 4 pounds in weight. I ended up giving some away to different people, but all told, after rendering, we have about 6 jars of it sitting in our cupboard and one in the refrigerator that we’re currently using. And we still have 2 bags of fat in the freezer.

Keep in mind, the yield of lard you will get out of your rendering experience will depend on the following:

  • Amount of lard used (pounds)
  • Cooking time
  • Altitude

Want more information on nutrient-dense, traditional foods?
9 reasons to make bone broth
11 healthy and nutrient-dense foods at-a-glance
The importance of dietary fats

This post is part of The Healthy Home Economist’s Monday Mania Carnival.