There has been a bag of hunks of pig fat sitting in the bottom of our freezer since last December when we purchased half of a heritage hog. It had been weighing on my mind. I've been trying to eat through our freezer so I can defrost and then refill it. Pork chops, gone. Sausage, gone. Ham, gone. Pork shoulder, gone. All that was left were a couple of packages of pork skin, some liver, and a bag of leaf lard: the highest quality fat deposits that surround the pig's kidneys. I've been told that it has little pork flavor, making it ideal for producing flaky, moist pie crusts.
Mind you, I've never made a homemade pie crust and I certainly have never rendered lard. But there is always a first time...
Before I tell you how I did it, I want to back up and admit that cooking with pork fat has long been a tradition in the Galloway family. When I first met Ed, I had no idea how to cook anything other than plain pasta, but he knew his way around the kitchen. On his stove top was a tin can into which he would pour his bacon drippings. A similar tin can also sat on his mother's stovetop and, in years past, both his grandmothers'. Ed would use a spoonful of the room-temperature bacon fat to cook a pork chop, brown some onions for chili, or fry an egg. I was baffled by this practice -- and a little concerned that I might die from it, which I didn't!
Fast forward 35 years and turns out that pork fat (lard) is back in fashion among chefs, especially southern chefs. We dined at Husk in Charleston, S.C., last winter and had the most delicious cornbread, made with – you guessed it – lard. I bought a can at Kroger and made a skillet of cornbread using Chef Sean Brock's recipe. It was good, but not as good as at Husk. I suspected it was the quality of lard, as most that is sold at a supermarket is rendered from a mixture of high and low quality pork fat sources. It is also hydrogenated and treated with bleaching and deodorizing agents. Yuck.
By rendering my own lard, I could get high quality fat that I could feel good about using. In fact, the lard I produced (unhydrogenated) has less saturated fat, more unsaturated fat, and less cholesterol than an equal amount of butter by weight. And unlike many margarines and vegetable shortenings, it contains no trans fat. Almost sounds healthy, right?
Rendering the lard required dicing it into small pieces and cooking it in my crockpot over low heat for hours and hours. As the fat melted, I ladled it into canning jars, which I later froze. At the end of the process, I was left with a cup or two of cracklins (which I'm still trying to figure out what to do with).
Once I was done, I couldn't wait to cook with it. Using the Husk restaurant recipe, I cooked up a cast-iron skillet full of cornbread. Thanks to the lard, it was crispy on the outside, soft and moist on the inside.
Now, I just need to tackle a pie crust. Wish me luck.
And then there is the question about what to do with the pig skin and liver, still in the freezer. Any suggestions?