When working with fat, it’s important that you always use safety as your first priority and never leave it unwatched on the stove. If you aren’t comfortable around fat, deep frying or working with hit fats, don’t proceed without doing additional homework; no DIY kitchen project is worth personal or property injury.
Our quest to cook traditionally has recently taken a turn; I’ve been examining my relationship with fat.
Although it’s obviously not recommended to consume a fat-based diet, there is certainly a role (and a need) for it in our diet and choosing the ‘right’ fats can be difficult. Many ‘newer’ fats (such as margarine, vegetable oils) are genetically modified, contain crazy ingredients that sound like a science experiment and are manufactured (the term is intentional) in ways that I can’t resolve.
On the other hand, commercial lard (or other fats) often contain trans fats, are produced with questionable (or abhorrent) regard to the quality of life an animal was raised with and can also contain science-experiment-like-ingredients.
I’m certainly not an expert on fat (Jennifer McLagan, who wrote FAT, appears to be) so this post will not be a breakdown of the health benefits of fat vs fat substitute but rather the instructions on how to render fat to create lard (that’s from pork) or suet/ tallow (that’s from beef).
Rendered fat is great for baking, frying, deep-frying or for cooking. It has a high smokepoint (it can withstand high heat) and adds a lovely taste to your dishes. Buying pieces of fat to render is extremely economic (it’s cheaper than commercially made butter) and gives you the opportunity to know the provenance of how the animal was raised (and killed).
You don’t have to render fat to get lard or suet – a traditional butcher may have some on-hand. I’ve learned that it’s rarely in the display case and often excites a butcher when they are asked. Note that I specify a ‘traditional’ butcher as many ‘meat shops’ no longer process whole animals and receive boxes of meat that are either pre-cut or allow minimal work to process. A butcher who purchases a whole animal will try to make the most out of every pound of flesh and will find a use for every piece that they possibly can.
If your butcher doesn’t have fat that’s already rendered, they may have whole fat for sale. Again, don’t expect to break the bank. I was able to buy 6 pounds of cubed fat from an organic wild boar for $12 over the holidays. Depending on how much you render the fat, you will get approximately 1 liter (quart) for every 2 pounds of fat.
My chunks of fat were roughly 1.5 x 3 inches thick. I’ve read advice that it’s best to chop the fat into tiny pieces but I haven’t found that necessary at all. I left them whole.
The concept of rendering fat is simple: you gently cook the chunks of fat to separate the fat from the solids the contain it. The key is to keep the heat high enough to release the fat without being so hot that you deep fry it. The process is simple:
- Pour 0.5-1 cups of water into a deep pan (when working with fat you should always have a pot with a lid in the event that you have a fire and need to cover it). Use as little as you can but ensure there’s a solid layer of water on the bottom of your pan. This will help the rendering start and prevent pan frying your fat.
- Add the fat into the pot.
- Heat the fat over medium heat. It’s hot enough if the fat begins to melt, too hot if it begins to crackle or fry.
- Continue to melt the fat over several hours. A light simmer is as high as you want and it should never sound like it’s frying.
- As the fat melts, a small solid piece will be left; this is the crackling (it will brown in time but remain soggy). The process will continue to remove fat from the cracklings until they are completely drained. You’ll be able to tell by looking but if you are uncertain, carefully remove a piece, place it in a bowl and allow to cool for a few minutes before carefully pressing with a potato masher or other instrument to extract any further fat. Use care as hot fat burns skin really easily.
- When complete, you will be left with 2 products: rendered fat (called lard if you used pork or tallow/suet if you used beef) and crackling. Most of the crackling can be retrieved with a fork/ slotted spoon but for ivory-white rendered fat you must strain it (allow the fat to cool to the point that there’s no danger of being burned and ladle through cheesecloth.
- Store crackling and rendered fat in a cool place (I use the fridge or freezer). The lard will turn very white; use it as called for in recipes and pan fry the crackling crisp to add to other dishes.
That’s all there is to it!