Lard. Ohh yes.
I’m not talking about the weight that may have accumulated on your thighs over the past few months (ok, who are we kidding, since last Halloween).
I’m talking delicious rendered down pig-fat (preferably from around the kidneys). For you pie-makers, lard is key for a tender, flavorful pie crust. Substitute lard for shortening in a recipe, or half of the amount of butter.
You may be thinking, what, butter isn't good enough? Am I that insecure in my street cred as a foodie that I need to aim for these kind of bragging rights?
Truth is, Lard is a mysterious ingredient for many of us who grew up with substitutions like Crisco. These days it’s often associated with Mexican cooking in america and not beyond that. It fell out of favor several decades ago along with bacon grease, suet and schmalz.
Now, as low-fat diets faze out, and we find out more about good and bad fats in our foods, lard and other animal fats are making a comeback in the home. Heck, Lard might even end up being good for us.
For now, working with, and especially rendering one’s own lard, elicits the response of "Wow..thats Hardcore," pretty much without fail.
Being a new-comer to the pig in general (I grew up Jewish but not kosher, which means we did have bacon rarely but I never had an intimate relashionship with pork and pig-parts), lard was doubly mysterious to me. Once I read up on it, I knew I had to try it, and the best way to experience the proper stuff is to make your own.
The truth is that rendering your own lard is easy, and if you are planning on using lard in your baking, it's recommended. Most of the lard you find in stores has been partially hydrogenized to make it shelf stable, which means it's just as full of trans fats as that Crisco. Unless you have access to a specialty source, its far healthier and cheaper to simply make your own.
Leaf lard, which is used in pastry, should not be confused with manteca, which is the lard found in the refigerated section of mexican grocery stores. Manteca is from a different part of the pig, and has a much stronger flavor. It's great for a pot of beans, but doesn't work well for sweet pastry or biscuits.
You can purchase leaf lard from your butcher, or if you are lucky enough to have a seller of berkshire or mangalisa pork at your farmers market, get it from them. (And if you are in Seattle, I very much recommend stopping by Wooley Pigs in the U-district saturday farmers market, where you can buy mangalitsa leaf lard for about 5 dollars)
How to render lard:
First, look over the lump of fat in front of you and trim off any meat that you see. Cut the fat into chunks.
Make sure you use a heavy-bottomed pan for rendering (I use my dutch oven). Heat the lard over low heat, stirring frequently. Some people recommend rendering in the oven but I get too paranoid that the fat will burn (and believe me, you do not want this). Keep an eye on the temperature - as the water evaporates, you may need to turn the heat down so that nothing scorches.
This process is going to take a while- at least an hour if not more. As the fat liquifies, bits will rise to the top. These are cracklins. Some people like to save and eat them, but I'm not a fan. Anyway, as the cracklins lose thier fat they should sink to the bottom.
Once the lard is liquid, run it through a fine strainer to catch any solids. Let it cool.
Now at this point, you can either simply pour the liquid fat into a glass container and keep in the fridge once its cooled. I like to have mine in neat sticks for cooking though, so if you want your lard in sticks, take a large baking pan (like the kind you would make lasagna in) and cover the inside with at least three layers of saran wrap. pour the lard into the baking pan and set it in the fridge to harden overnight.
Once the fat is hardened, you should be able to lift it out with the saran wrap easily. Cut it into sticks, and wrap in several more layers of saran wrap. Store in the freezer.