As the winter has progressed here in Minnesota, I have combated the decreased daylight and increasing cold by turning my attention to the kitchen. My family has been enjoying warm fresh bread, prune and strawberry kolackies, venison steak and fresh caught fish fried to perfection. As my cooking and baking has increased, the supply of my favorite fat has slowly dwindled and it was time to make more. It was time to render lard.
Home rendered lard has been used for generations before us. Prior to WWII, when Crisco came into the picture and lard was labeled as 'unhealthy', lard was the traditional fat choice for our ancestors. Pigs raised on the farm were butchered in the fall and wives in the kitchens cooked down every bit of fat to be used in the winter months when butter may run low. Lard is shelf stable at room temp so did not require extra care once it was rendered. Many a farm kid remembers warm bread spread with melting lard or the taste of chicken fried in lard. And of course, lard does make the best pie crust. Lard was used to make soaps and lotions and the cracklings from the rendering added wonderful flavor to many dishes.
Why use lard? Not only is it a great way to support your local butchers and farmers by purchasing pork fat from locally raised animals but it's healthy. Lard is a great source of bioavailable Vitamin D, something many of us could use a bit more of in winter. It is also high in the monounsaturated fat oleic acid, the same heart healthy essential fatty acid found in olive oil. Lard has a high smoke point (it won't burn easily) and a neutral flavor so its great for frying just about anything. Its neutral flavor makes it a great fat substitute in any baking and in my humble opinion, makes the best bread.
To begin the lard making process, I reached out to a local butcher with a request for ground pork fat. I was in luck as he was scheduled to butcher several pigs within the week. I had him freeze the fat until I was ready to pick it up and decided on a cold January weekend to render lard.
The night before, I pulled the fat out to thaw. The block of fat was about 15-20lbs. There are numerous ways to render fat but I chose to use a crockpot. Our early pioneers likely used a large pot to slow cook the pork fat but for my own modern ease, I used the crockpot. I used a knife to cut hunks of fat off the big block and put them in the crockpot. I turned the crockpot up to high and started rendering.
Numerous recipes call for a slow cooking of the fat. I chose to use my crockpot on high while stirring the fat every few minutes and switching the temp to low near the end. The rationale behind cooking it on low is to prevent overheating the fat which imparts a porky flavor to the lard. A porky flavor is not bad if you are using your lard for frying. I use mine in frying and baking so I prefer the neutral flavor of the snow white lard. To get this pure lard, I watched the lard closely, stirred frequently to prevent sticking of the cracklings to the bottom and dropped the temp to low when it was getting close to done (bottom left photo). The rendering process took about 1.5-2 hours per batch. My block of pork fat made three crockpots of lard.
How do you know when the lard is done rendering? You'll notice the cracklings, which are the bits of ground pork mixed in with the fat, start to settle to the bottom of the crockpot. There will be a layer of clear looking liquid fat on the top of the settling cracklings. Also, the pork bits will no longer be pink. They will turn a grayish brown when the lard is done.
Next, you will strain out the lard. I set up a strainer with cheesecloth over a pot in my sink. Be careful not to spill the lard as it will clog your sink! I slid the hot crockpot close to the sink and ladled the liquid fat and cracklings into the strainer. As the cheesecloth filled with pork bits, I'd gently squeeze to release any remaining fat and dump the cooked pork bits into a bowl. I'd reuse the cheesecloth until the crockpot was empty. I used new cheesecloth with each new crockpot of lard.
Once the crockpot was empty and all of the pork bits were dumped in a bowl, I took the hot liquid lard and poured it into clean wide mouth mason jars. I used this method as its easier to pour down into jars in the sink vs lifting the pot to pour into jars on the counter. Again, use caution not to spill as the lard will clog your drain. Once the jars were filled, I placed lids and rings on them and tada, you have lard! The liquid lard is yellowish in color but turns white as it cools. Many people say that lard is shelf stable at room temp but I prefer to refrigerate mine, just as a precaution. I have used lard from the fridge that was in there for two years and its just as pure as the day I made it. My 15-20lb block of pork fat yielded me 6.5 quarts for lard.
And now, what to do with the pork bits? The leftover ground pork bits from the rendering process, which closely resemble the ground pork we've all seen, are called pork cracklings. Dump these cracklings into a pan, salt them a bit and start frying. As they cook down, the pork bits will brown and release a bit more lard. They might also start to pop. A splatter screen is very handy here to prevent a mess. The pork cracklings will start to foam when they are close to done. I like mine extra crunchy so I cooked them down quite a bit.
Once the cracklings are cooked to your liking, strain them through clean cheesecloth again with a pan underneath to catch the crackling lard. Dump the cracklings onto a sheet pan to cool and try not eat them all. The flavor is very similar to bacon and my lunch that day may have consisted of a large helping of pork cracklings. Once cooled, store in a ziploc bag and pop them in the freezer. Use them to flavor salads, eggs, anything you'd enjoy a bacon like flavor added to. They are delicious!
And what did I do with the fat strained from the fried cracklings? Saved it! This fat, with its bacony flavor, will impart wonderful flavor to fried eggs or fried venison. This versatile fat will be put to good use as our grills are tucked away for the winter and much of our proteins are fried on the stove.
We hope you enjoyed learning more about this heritage fat that was a staple in our ancestors diets. Our desire is to share parts of the history that shaped our ancestors lives and give the current generation the opportunity to learn more about them. We hope this post gave you an interesting glimpse into the diet and life of our early pioneers.
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