Over the past few years I have fallen more and more in love with cooking and baking with lard. It makes beautiful pastries and I love the flavor of roasting veg and other savory foods in this beautiful silky white fat.
However, growing up I remember adults referencing lard almost as if it was a bad word. I would hear things like,”my grandmother used to make the best biscuits, but they were filled with lard!!” And then everyone would gasp as if this was a terribly awful thing.
As I have become more educated in the culinary world, I have started to question what everyone’s hang up with lard is when not all that long ago it was the choice cooking fat.
Upon further research I have discovered two major events have had a huge role in destroying the reputation of lard in America: The publishing of the book The Jungle had a big effect on how we view the production of lard, but the creation of Crisco was a major (source), I mean HUGE, player in making everyone believe that lard was worse for you than their highly processed, hydrogenated, “vegetable fat.”
Basically the decline in lard’s reputation has a whole lot to do with marketing and very little to do with actual facts about what lard truly is and is not. In fact, Planet Money has a fascinating podcast (if you find the history of cooking fats fascinating, which I do!) on just this subject.
But without getting into the really nitty gritty details here about why lard has become a naughty word to the ears of most people, I want to delve into the subject of lard, what it is, why it is an excellent cooking and baking fat, why I find it beneficial to make your own, and the easy process of how to do so!
What is Lard?
The word lard is actually a general term that refers to fat from a pig. Typically when you hear the word lard in regard to cooking or baking, the term is referring to the rendered fat from a pig.
This can get a bit confusing sometimes because if you go into a butcher shop looking for lard you will likely be given whole pieces of fat tissue, not rendered fat. Whole pieces of pig fat are also referred to as raw lard. For the purposes of being clear in this article I will differentiate between raw lard (whole fat tissue), and rendered lard.
Lard can technically be rendered from any fat from a pig. If you, like me, save your fat after cooking bacon, then technically you are already rendering your own lard. (P.S.-This bacon grease saver is amazing if you do this!)
However, bacon fat lard has a distinct bacon flavor to it because it has been cured and usually smoked, and while that is a beautiful thing when frying eggs and roasting potatoes, the lard we are aiming to archive here is a pure white neutral flavored fat that is more versatile in all cooking, especially in making beautiful pastries.
Why Make Your Own Lard?
Not so long ago, lard was commonly used in most kitchens. It was highly regarded as the fat that produced the flakiest pastries and the crispiest fried chicken. Somewhere along the way we started believing that lard was worse than other fats.
I am not dietitian and am not here to educate on the healthiness of one fat over another, however I tend to believe that fat rendered simply from a consciously raised animal has got to be a little easier on my body than all of those highly processed, hydrogenated, fats and oils filled with all kinds of chemicals I can’t pronounce.
My personal reason for rendering my own lard is because it is simply difficult to find a high quality lard on the market. Many store bought lards are hydrogenated and highly processed with chemicals. This brand pictured below is usually the only lard I can find in the grocery store and notice how it states it is “lard and hydrogenated lard.” No thank you!
BUT rendering your own lard is so incredibly simple to do and it is so worth it! That said, if you are interested in cooking with high quality lard and have no desire to render it yourself Fatworks Foods is a great company that sells responsibly rendered Lard and Beef Tallow.
Fat to use for Lard and Where to Purchase
Pork fat is not something that you are going to walk into a grocery store and find already packaged in the meat section. You are going to have to seek it out and know what to ask for. In my experience I have never found a grocery store that carries pork fat.
You need a place that is actually breaking down whole hogs such as a butcher or a farmer. The premium fat that is used for rendering lard is called Leaf Lard. Leaf lard comes from the fat that surrounds the kidneys and inside the loin of the pig.
This fat is very pure and has very little to no meat mixed throughout the fat. This makes these pieces of fat ideal for rendering lard because it will produce the most neutral flavor fat with the least piggy taste. You may also hear this fat labeled as “pork suet fat.”
Technically, suet is a word to describe the leaf lard equivalent fat found in a cow, however a farmer we work with at my job does label their leaf lard this way. My biggest advice would be to tell your butcher that you are looking to render lard and you are looking for raw fat to do that. They should help you out.
Pork back fat (of fatback) can also be used for rendering lard and also produces a fairly high quality fat, however, lard rendered from fatback tends to have a slight pork flavor and smell to it which can make it less desirable for making pastries. I will tell you the easiest way to reduce the pork flavor in the rendering tutorial below.
How to Render Lard:
Step 1: Break down your fat.
I typically render 2lbs at the very least of fat at a time. The process is a little long, though very easy, so it makes since to do it in large batches.
You have a few choices in how you break down your fat for rendering. Up until the last few times I’ve rendered lard, I have cut it up into small pieces. It works well, the lard renders just fine and it is fairly easy and mess free to do it this way.
Larger pieces of fat are going to withstand a little higher temperature for rendering, but I find that this method renders slightly less fat. If you want to do it this way, very cold fat is much easier to cut up. I typically put my fat in the freezer for about 20 minutes before cutting it in order to firm it up.
Another option would be to ask the butcher you purchase your fat from to grind it for you. You could also grind it yourself if you have a meat grinder. The benefit of ground fat is that it is going to render much more quickly and it will render more fat.
However, you do have to be more careful about your heat level, and you need to babysit it a little more. This method requires more frequent stirring and straining.
My new and favorite way of breaking down my raw lard is to create a sort of fat paste by buzzing it in my food processor. I cut the fat into large chunks and then in medium batches I put it in my food processor and buzz it until all the tissue is broken down and it creates a sort of fat paste (yummy).
The benefit of this is that the fat renders so incredibly quickly and the yield is definitely higher. The downside is that the process of making the paste is super sticky and it isn’t particularly fun to clean the fat caked food processor.
I suggest not trying this if you do not have a good strong food processor, such as a Cuisinart, as it takes some power to accomplish this. You also must be very careful in watching the lard rendering if you use this method because it will render very quickly and you will want to start straining quickly.
Step 2: Begin heating your fat
If you have a slow cooker, then definitely use that for rendering your lard. It will give you low even heat and reduce the likelihood of browning your fat. If you do not have a slow cooker then I suggest doing this in your oven on low heat.
I have rendered lard on the stove-top before and I do not recommend doing this. The direct heat is going to greatly increase the likelihood of browning the fat and giving you a more pork flavor to your rendered lard. This is my biggest tip for decreasing the pork smell and flavor in your fat! Use low even heat!
Put your fat in your slow cooker and turn on low or in a dutch oven (or other oven proof pot) and put it into an oven heated at 250F. I also like to add a tiny bit of water at this point. I usually do about 2 TBSP or up to 1/4 cup if I’m rendering a large amount of fat at once.
The water will evaporate out, but will help prevent the fat from burning. I just see it as extra insurance for beautiful pure white lard makin!
Step 3: Stir and Strain
How frequently you need to stir and strain is going to depend on which method you went with for breaking down your fat. If you chose to cut it up, you can probably stir about every 30 minutes and strain as needed when you see a good amount of liquid fat forming.
If you decided to grind or make fat paste, then you want to stir much more frequently. With the paste, I stir about every 10 minutes and start straining about 20 minutes in.
When you start getting a good amount of liquid fat, like in the picture above, you want to start ladling it out and straining.
Use a fine mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth (or paper towels if you do not have cheesecloth) and begin ladling liquid fat out of the pot.
Continue heating, stirring, and straining until you have mostly hard pieces of tissue left.
Pro Tip: I keep the first one or two strainings of fat in it’s own separate jar. This early rendered fat is what I use for pastries, and I save the fat strained later in the process for savory cooking. That fat has been heated for longer and has more of a chance of having more of a pork flavor to it.
The rendered lard will be a very light pale yellow color when liquid. Once the fat solidifies it will turn bright white!
I store my lard in mason jars in the refrigerator and if I have a large batch then I will freeze some. Because lard is pure fat, it pretty much keeps indefinitely. But I wouldn’t keep it in the refrigerator longer than a year. BUT it never lasts that long anyway.
Over the years, I have done a lot of reading about lard, it’s benefits, and how to properly render it. Here are a few of my favorite reads and watches if you want to learn more about it!
- I love this video from my culinary hero, Alton Brown, about rendering lard.
- Empowered Sustenance has a fascinating article about the health benefits of lard.
- And I particularly love this in depth history of lard from Earthy Delights Blog.
- Starting with very cold fat, either cut it into small pieces, grind it, or buzz it in a food processor into a paste. You can also ask your butcher to grind it for you.
- Place all of the fat and your water into your slow cooker or an oven proof pot. If you are making a really large batch you can use more water.
- Turn the slow cooker on low heat, or if using the oven heat it to 250F.
- Stir the fat periodically. If you made a paste you may want to do this every 10 minutes. If you cut your fat into pieces or are making a really large batch you can go as long as 30 minutes before stirring.
- Once you start seeing a good amount of liquid fat being rendered, begin ladling out the fat into a cheesecloth (or paper towel) lined fine mesh strainer.
- Allow the fat to cool at room temperature and then store in the refrigerator or freezer.
- If desired, return the solid pieces of tissue to the pan and cook until crispy. These are called cracklins and many people enjoy them as a snack with salt or over a salad.