Lard…it used to be like white gold. The fat from a pig was an important part of the diet often valued equally to the meat. And way back when (in the days before superstores and Maple Leaf), if you wanted pork, you butchered a pig and then you would have all the things that came with it: meat, bacon, ham, sausages of different kinds, lard, etc. So if you ran out of lard way before everything else was gone…you made the pig fatter before butchering! Because with pork fat, or lard, you can actually do that (grow more on one pig, that is); where as with bacon or ribs there is only ever going to be so much per pig and that’s it.
And then something strange happened…for a whole list of reasons, people quit using lard. I don’t know half of them but one reason is the myth that lard is unhealthy, or at least more unhealthy than vegetable oils and shortenings. In any case, suddenly we didn’t want our pigs fat anymore and slowly lard disappeared from our menus.
Fact of the matter is that a pig will always grow SOME fat. Partly because you can’t grow a pig without ribs either, fat is as essential a part of the pig as its ribs or other parts are; and partly because the meat part of the pig would taste terrible if there was no fat. Just think of bacon as an easy example: for good bacon you need it to have a certain amount of fat and if there’s fat in the bacon, there will be fat on other parts of the pig. This is especially true for non-conventional pigs…like for example the Berkshires we raise. And so when we butcher our happy pigs to fill your plates with tenderloin, bacon, and chops, there will also be some fat or lard.
The problem is that these days it seems that a lot of us hardly know what to do with lard (other than make pie crust), let alone how it goes from pig to plate (because as you probably guessed, it doesn’t grow on the pig in smooth, white, odorless blocks) And so I would like to share with you some of the appreciation for lard that I was raised with…
For those of you that don’t know, I was born in Austria. And Austria is a country where lard is still much more a part of the culture than here in North America. Which is the reason why that I grew up eating more lard than some, even though I grew up in Canada. An example of something very Austrian: lard mixed with cracklings on dark bread sprinkled with a bit of salt…lunch! (Very good especially with some garlic and when you are good and hungry because it is quite rich) My mom made that sometimes when I was a kid.
Ok. Let’s get down to business. I’ll tell you what I do today with lard: Lard starts out as a layer of fat covering the pig just under the skin. Or at least that’s were the most of it is. There is a type of lard that is just inside the ribs that is called leaf lard which is of different/higher quality especially for baking and such, but there is less of it per pig.
When butchered, the excess lard is separated from the meat and skin and then it is ground up. (like burger only coarser) And that is what you would get should you buy lard from us: a bag with ground lard in it. It looks white, possibly just slightly pink with a mushy consistency, and similar in scent to other raw pork.
I take this bag, and thaw it out. Then I put it in a pot (heavy bottom pot works best) or in a roaster if you don’t have a big enough pot, and put it on the stove or oven on low heat. Like 200 F in the oven or Med Lo on the stove. This is so the raw fat can slowly start to melt. Melting the raw fat is called rendering.
In the start, stir often as the fat will tend to stick a bit on the bottom of the pot. As the lard melts, there will be more and more liquid in the pot. Keep stirring occasionally until all the solid “fat burger” is melted. You will now have a liquid with little bits floating in it. First it will look rather milky and the bits will be light colored and rather chunky and pretty soon the liquid will turn clear and the bits will turn just slightly golden and seem slightly crispy. That’s what it looks like when it’s done. (by the way, the bits are the cracklings and they taste AWESOME) In the end you will have to pay it more attention because it is very VERY hot and can easily burn. So if you notice that your pot of liquid lard is smoking ever so slightly, that’s not good, pull it off the heat.
The next step is the trickiest. I like to strain the lard when it’s piping hot because I find that most of the lard will drain from the cracklings that way, leaving the cracklings dry and crumbly and good (rather than a congealed clump) So make sure you have a heat resistant container and a metal sieve, wear oven mitts and send the little kids away and strain the lard.
This whole process will send an amazing unique scent through the house. I love it but some people find it too rich. The next step is to let everything cool a bit. I usually can’t wait for the cracklings to cool before starting to nibble at them!
When the lard is cool enough so I can touch the outside of the pot with my bare hands I will fill it into small handy containers (I use old yogurt containers) and put it in the fridge or freezer. The lard will then set into the smooth, white consistency similar to store-bought (it will keep outside of the fridge as well, however it will stay creamier). And it won’t be odorless…that’s good, that’s what lard is supposed to smell like. (imagine butter that didn’t smell like anything)
The cracklings I’ll put in the fridge too.
If the lard won’t set quite hard and it has a browny color and a slightly “fried” smell, you probably had it on the heat just a bit too long. That doesn’t mean it’s wrecked, it just means it won’t be as good in baking.
So now you have lard…now what? Well this is how I use mine, even though there are a lot more ways to use it if you get adventurous: The minute I pull out a pot or a pan to fry chops, potatoes, start stews or soups, cook omelettes, sauté onions, it all gets started out with a generous amount of lard. That’s probably how I use it the most…in simply everything, instead of oil or butter (there are a few exceptions because some things just scream butter) I use lard. There is nothing that smells quite like onions sautéing in lard! That always gets my appetite going!
Then of course if you want to deep fry something, anything, from chicken, to French fries, to donuts and fish, lard is the thing to use.
And last but not least, any recipe that calls for shortening can have lard instead. A lot of recipes that call for butter can have lard instead depending on your mood.
So there you go…suddenly your using lard and everything just tastes a bit better! And if you want to try something from the old country, get some dark bread, toast it a bit, rub a clove of garlic on it, cover with lard, sprinkle with salt…Mmmm!
I know I sure miss mine when I run out! Oh and the cracklings! You can bake them into bread or biscuits for a hearty addition to soups and stews or my personal favorite: start them warming in a pan and then fry some potatoes with them!