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A week or so ago I decided to render some lard. This is something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I bought Jennifer McLagan‘s book Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes during our visit to San Francisco last August. I picked up this book in Berkeley and couldn’t put it down. I sat there reading it for probably twenty minutes and told my husband that I couldn’t leave without it.

It’s one of those books that completely changes the way you look at things. I mean, who ever thought of writing a cookbook praising the virtues of fat? What McLagan argues, very convincingly, is that our bodies need fat and there’s little conclusive scientific evidence that a low-fat diet actually works. I’ll let you read the book for the full argument, but what you should know is that low-fat isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. If eaten in moderation fat won’t kill you. I promise. Lard has less saturated fat than butter (lard: 39%, butter: 50%), and doesn’t leave you hungry and scrounging for more fat free devil’s food cakes.

As someone who loves Southern food this is great news! I mean, I can really get back to my roots if I can cook with lard! The problem, of course, is that my grandmother’s generation stopped cooking with lard when Crisco was introduced. There is no one around to teach me how to do this, so I’m on my own. Armed with McLagan’s book and a few links to some food bloggers, I decided to give it a whirl. What follows is my excursion into pork back fat. You want to use the highest-quality fat you can find. I got this from Chestnut Farms, who have a stand at the farmer’s market. They’d vacuum packed 5 lbs. in two packages, which I’d put into the freezer and rendered in two separate batches. I used back fat this time, but you can also  use leaf lard. As I understand it leaf lard is the highest quality and the best for pie crusts or delicate pastries.

Properly rendered lard should have a completely neutral smell and taste. On the other hand, you can cook it for longer or at a higher heat and get Mexican lard, which has a roasted pork flavor. The first batch I cooked for way too long, so basically I got two jars of Mexican lard. Good for refried beans, but not necessarily the best for biscuits. The problem was, I kept expecting the pieces of fat to melt entirely and that just never happened, with either batch. Nor did the cracklings ever really pop off the fat. McLagan recommends using the oven for more than a pound, but she also gives instructions on using the stove top; maybe that would yield different results. Here’s the fat as I’m cutting it:

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Lard

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees and cut the fat into 1 inch cubes or smaller. Put the diced fat into a Dutch oven or other heavy oven-proof casserole or sauce pan. Add approximately 1/3 c. water per 1 lb. of fat; this will keep it from burning. Place the pan in the oven, uncovered. Stir after 30 minutes, then after 45 minutes, then every hour until the fat begins to color. The water will eventually evaporate and the fat will melt. As you stir you can really press the pieces to the sides of the pan to help them along. After a few hours you will notice the liquid starting to brown a bit around the edge of the pot (you can see this in the picture below). Strain through a cheesecloth-lined sieve or colander. Once all the liquid has drained from the fat, put the fat back into the Dutch oven and return to the oven, stirring every hour until you render more lard from the remaining pieces. This will be the Mexican lard that will have a more smoky pork flavor and smell.

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You can see that I just re-used some jars and containers that I had in my kitchen. This lard will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 months, or in the freezer for a year. I don’t know if you can read my labels, but I dated them and labeled “neutral lard” and “smoky lard.” McLagan says that you should average 1-1 1/2 c. of lard per lb. of fat. I think I maybe got 4 c. total, including the Mexican lard. Next time I’m going to try the stove top. If you’ve had success with rendering lard please let me know; I’d like to figure this out.

Since I’ve got so much of the Mexican lard I decided to make carnitas and refried beans with cilantro rice. The lard really does make a world of difference. I’d never tasted refried beans like this, except maybe during breakfast in Merida, when we where there on our honeymoon. These beans were rich and creamy and delicious; I’ll never be able to eat the stuff from the can with satisfaction again.

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