How To: Rendering Lard

Living in upstate New York has meant I can no longer be as lazy about satisfying my Mexican food needs as I was when living in Phoenix. There’s no 24-hour drive thru with really great horchata. No one selling tamales in the parking lots of bars and stores in the evening. Good tamales too. No food court inside the grocery store, selling massive tortas, cubana, de res, milanesa, for $5. No seafood-filled fresh coconut. No pastelerías with sugar topped conchas, no gooey pineapple empanadas.

The horror.

Worst of all is the lack of tortillerías. There may be one, in Schenectady, a place where all the fun is in pronouncing the name, not in visiting. And that is a 45 minute trip not that not be worth taking. Sure, there’s tortillas, flour and corn, available at the WASP-iest of grocery stores. Old El Paso, Ortega, LA Tortilla Factory. Is that Los Angeles or LA as in ‘the’?

It was so easy to avoid these options in Phoenix, where the two most common businesses may be tortillerías and plastic surgeons. No relation.

But upstate New York, the only option has become to finally let go of my grumbly attitude towards regular tortilla making.

I am big city Mexican! I never needed to make my own tortillas!

Not any more my dear.

And after all of this, it turns out this is not even a post on tortilla making, but on the thing most needed for flour tortillas: lard.

Any fat from a pig could be rendered and called lard, but the best comes from the far around the liver and kidneys, also known as leaf lard, as it has a more neutral taste. The thick layers of fat from the belly result in a sightly less flavor-neutral rendered fat, with the fat from the shoulder and ham having a decidedly more ‘porky’ flavor. It is all worth rendering, particularly if the source is a pastured organically-raised pig, but different types should be rendered separately, unless you want to end up with a porky pie crust.

To each their own.

Unlike vegetable shortening, leaf lard, rendered or not, is not easy to find in (non-Mexican) grocery stores, but should be easy to find at a local farmers market. Farmers raising animals in small scale are dedicated to selling every usable part of their stock. If you don’t see lard in their product list, simply ask. Chances are they have a stockpile of it in their freezer.

Rendered Lard

  • 5 pounds leaf lard
  • Cold water, as needed

Be sure to remove any blood and blood vessels from the lard before cutting and rendering. It is unlikely any large pieces of meat will be attached to the fat, as a good butcher would remove these. Any small pieces remaining can be cooked into cracklins at the end of the rendering process.

Working with a very sharp knife, cut the lard into 1/2″ cubes. It will cut more easily if slightly frozen, preventing the fat from becoming too soft. If desired, the fat can be passed through a meat grinder fitted with a large dye. If doing so, place all grinder parts in the freezer for at least 3 hours, to prevent from overheating, and once again, use fat that is very cold.

Having tried both methods, I have never noticed a significant advantage to grinding the fat, and achieved nothing more than a greased up grinder.

Do not for any reason think it is a good idea to cut the leaf lard using a food processor, unless you want to end up with an off-putting pink sludge. I have seen this. It is not pleasant.

Place the cut lard in a large thick-bottom pot, preferably one fitted with a lid, large enough to accommodate everything in a not too deep of a layer. The lard will render more easily if not too crowded. Add enough cold water to the pot to cover 1″ of the fat.

The water will help the fat begin to render without burning, or sticking to the pot. Dry rendering the lard, meaning without the use of water, requires a bit more vigilance to prevent the fat, and any bits of meat attached to it, from cooking and resulting in a much more porky, gold-colored lard.

Cook over low-medium heat. After the water evaporates, and a good layer of rendered fat forms, begin skimming it, pouting into a heat-proof glass container, and filtering over a fine mesh strainer lined with cheese cloth or a coffee filter. Like a lot of things in cooking, this step of removing the fat as it renders, rather than waiting till the end, is entirely up to the person cooking. That being said, it does speed up the process. Fat yet to be rendered submerged under a deep layer of liquid fat will be at a lower temperature than exposed fat. Nothing mysterious in that.

While rendering, watch out for exploding fat projectiles. A lid comes in handy to keep these in check. Five pounds of leaf lard should result in approximately half a gallon of rendered lard.

When the last bit of fat has been rendered, return any bits of fat and cook meat that remain to the pot. Sprinkle with a bit of salt, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and crunchy.

Enjoy the lard of your labors. Those cracklins are best with a drizzle of lime juice and hot sauce.

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