In the not too distant past, pigs were raised with an eye to their fat. For the pioneers, butter and lard were the only reliable sources of fat–they didn’t have fancy presses or chemical processes to extract oils from seeds or nuts, and olive trees don’t grow well in North America. So each household had a pig or two which they deliberately fattened not only for the meat, but also to render the fat and carefully use it all winter long. Certain breeds were known for their fat-producing qualities, such as Berkshires or Old Spot.
A hog produces two kinds of fat: back fat and leaf fat. In a package, the thick square-cut strips are the backfat, and the weird shaped folded fat is the leaf fat from around the kidneys, which can be pulled out by hand. Leaf lard is said to be the best fat for pies. While cutting up the leaf lard, I noticed it is full of connective tissue, which I diced along with the other fat. My butcher says she doesn’t notice much difference between the fats, that the back fat is no more “porky” than the leaf, but in my first experiment making lard, I kept them apart just to see. She was right: I didn’t see or smell any difference.
I find making lard is much faster and easier than the other “use all the bits” processes such as sausages or headcheese. Equipment is simple:
- a crockpot with temperature settings
- a ladle
- several small glass jars (jelly or salmon jar size)
- rubber bands
- paper towels
- Several layers of newspaper on the counter also aid in cleanup.
It’s a project that doesn’t take constant attention: Start in the morning and melt slowly over the course of the day.
I diced the fat into little 1/2″ chunks, dumped it all into the crock pot, added 1/4 cup water, set it to Low and put on the lid. For the rest of the day I cycled between Low and Warm. Every website reiterates Don’t Burn the Fat! so I kept things low and slow.
The better websites also said to skim the fat as you go–don’t wait for it all to melt.
One thing: making lard makes everything greasy. Greasy greasy greasy! You try to be careful, but the hot grease will drip and spill. Your hands get greasy. The spoons are greasy. The stove gets greasy. Your elbows and nose get greasy. I used up almost an entire roll of paper towels, which usually lasts me a month. Keep wiping with paper towels and don’t let all that grease go down into your drainpipes, or you’ll have to pour vats of boiling water down them to melt everything.
After trying several different filtering systems, I’ve settled on the simple paper towel / jar method. I never use any size bigger than a pint jar, and like the half-pint jelly jar best. I freeze my lard–home canners don’t work at all–and I prefer to take out the smallest quantity at a time.
While the fat is heating up, get your jars ready. Place the paper towel over the mouth of the jar, make a deep hollow, and secure with a rubber band. The hollow should extend at least one-fourth into the jar.
When enough fat has melted so you can see liquid, use the ladle to start skimming out the fat, and pouring slowly through the filters. Continue this through the day, being especially careful toward the end not to burn the remaining cracklings. When the liquid fat is almost gone, you will hear the cracklings start to sizzle. Reduce temperature to Warm, and stir often toward the end. I usually prop the crockpot about 1 inch on one side, shove the cracklings toward the high end, let the last fat flow toward the bottom and spoon it out with a smaller tool.
I ladle into two or three jars with each scoop because the fat doesn’t drip through the paper very quickly. When the level reaches the paper, transfer to another jar, and top up the first jar with melted fat from other vessels. Pop on a lid, wipe down with a paper towel. At this point you could wash the jar in hot soapy water. Set aside to harden, and eventually put into the freezer.
One pig side makes about eight pints of lard, but your mileage may vary. I raise my pigs to between 95-115 pound sides–the higher weights have more fat on the carcass. Sometimes a butcher leaves a large layer of fat on a roast–sometimes I cut that off and save it, and make more lard later. Unlike earlier in my life, I never throw away fat anymore–one way or another it gets used. I no longer buy vegetable oil. The only fats in my cupboard are olive oil, peanut oil (a dollop raises the smoke point of all oils), lard, butter, and rendered chicken fat (there’s nothing like potatoes fried in chicken fat).
Island Shire has pork sides available, with extra fat for lard. Click here to learn more.
Ever since I read Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, I have wondered what “cracklin’s” are and why on earth people go on and on about them, rhapsodizing about how good they are and what a luxury they were and how they fought over them as kids. Why in the book would Ma say “they are too rich for little girls”? Why anyone would choose to eat the leftover bits of whatever-it-is when the fat is gone? Isn’t that disgusting? The whole idea of fat in particular, and then THAT part? Very redneck.
Cracklings are variously described as browned or crunchy. In the crockpot toward the end of the day I noticed that things were turning color, even though the melted fat looked perfectly clear. I thought I probably had cracklin’s.
So, let’s be a redneck.
Initially, no taste. I chewed a bit. Huh. Not really crunchy, but more like a crackle between my teeth. Huh. An apt name, indeed. No taste… wait….wait…. Oh good heavens, what is THAT? The cracklin’s had finally spread throughout my entire mouth, and then the flavor hit. Oh wow. Very subtle, like faint bacon, but with a richness that is even more satisfying. There’s no salt in this. It’s just pure flavor. Except it’s almost like not a flavor.
I wondered if this in the umami that I’ve read about and was never sure if I’d experienced–umami, supposedly the hard-to-define fifth taste.
I found myself returning to the crockpot, again and again, to taste cracklin’s. Weirdly addictive. Maybe kids hate to eat fat because they haven’t yet developed a umami taste, and to them fat is just a waste of time and chewing.
I’m looking now into ways of turning cracklings into something like bacon bits, that can be sprinkled on baked potatoes or put into salads. Let me know if you have a good recipe for that, so that they don’t clump together.