The New Home Economics


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Rendering lard

I finally tried rendering my own lard.  I may never do it again.  The smell was absolutely revolting. (Caveat: my stomach was also a little off that weekend, because I was also cleaning projectile vomit off every surface of the bathroom.  Anneke had a stomach bug.)

Let’s see how this all went down.

I used the crockpot method, as outlined in the wonderful Simple Green Frugal blog. The fat came from my brother-in-law, who buys whole butchered pigs from a farmer in NW Minnesota.  I think he throws the fat in for free.  It sat in his freezer for a few months, then in mine for several weeks.  We thawed it completely before starting.  HOLY COW was that a big bag.  I had to go through the whole process twice.

Here I am ladling the melted fat and cracklings into my cheesecloth-covered canning funnel.  I froze all the leftover cracklings and have no clue what to do with them.  They smelled so disgusting I couldn’t bring myself to try one.

Lard chilling out in the snow on the deck.

And the final product.  As you can see, it is not the pure white I was expecting.  The “porky” taste is also much stronger than I anticipated.  With my first batch, I thought it was because I didn’t cook it long enough, so I let the second batch cook longer, but with the same result.

I’m confused, because the lard we bought from the co-op was pure white, only smelled slightly porky, and gave no porky flavor to anything we baked with it.  I’m going to venture a guess here:  it’s possible that the stuff from the co-op, which was a little on the expensive side, was pure leaf lard, whereas the fat I used was maybe fatback or caul fat.  The only reason I guess that is because of the sheer amount of fat that was in the bag.  It was over ten pounds.

So, readers, do you think that’s it?  It’s not like the lard is unuseable, it’s just that you have to, uh, develop a taste for it I guess?

The kids sure didn’t seem to notice the ever-so-slight pork flavor in the crust of this otherwise-delicious pumpkin pie.  I think it’s me.  I have an oversensitive palate for this sort of thing.  Perhaps because I was raised on margarine.

SO, if you live in the Minneapolis area and have a hankering to try a half-pint of lard, I have several extra.  As well as a TON of frozen cracklings.  I’m sure you’ll all be knocking down my door, right?

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Cooking with lard

Yes, you read that right.  We’ve been experimenting with lard, on and off, for a few months now.  We’ve cut really, really far back on most processed foods in our lives, but there was one thing we still needed ye olde tub of shortening for: pie crust.  Adam is semi-famous for his pie crusts, and was reluctant to trade in something that he knew worked well for the unknown.

Now the results are in: he finally made a pumpkin pie crust with lard instead of vegetable shortening, and I am telling you: it was the most delicious crust I’ve ever eaten.  Light, flakey, and the kids went crazy for it.

We also made some ginger cookies with a half lard/half butter combination last week:

They too were delicious.

I was really nervous about using lard in baked goods because when you open up the container it smells like, well, it smells like what your kitchen smells like about 4 hours after frying bacon.  Not so appetizing.  Furthermore, we tried frying with it a few times —  once for popcorn and once for fish — and it really  made the kitchen smell icky.  I have to say, though, that both the popcorn and the fish tasted really good, with no hint of bacon flavor.  Strange, yes?

Adam was reading his Ratio cookbook and Ruhlman recommends using lard only in highly-spiced baked goods — apparently that bacony flavor can come through if you make, say, simple short-bread cookies with lard.  That makes sense to me.

But what about the health implications of all this?  Well, it never would have occurred to me to seek out lard until I read about it in Nourishing Traditions last year.  You will not be surprised to learn that Fallon and the Weston A. Price Foundation recommend using lard in cooking, as well as duck fat, chicken fat, and beef tallow.  But what about the saturated fat?  Well, let’s talk about that for a minute.

First, let’s look at this simple breakdown of Crisco shortening, Spectrum Organic Shortening (which we have been using in pie crusts), and lard.  Behold, the first-ever New Home Economics TABLE:

Name Total Fat Saturated Mono-
unsaturated
Poly-
unsaturated
“Trans”
Crisco 12g 3g 3g 6g 0g
Spectrum Organic 13g 6g 5g 2g 0g
lard 12g 4.8g 5.76g 1.4g 0g

Now, keep in mind: the amounts for the lard can vary depending on the pig’s diet. I got these amounts from Nourishing Traditions, which most likely assumes that you’re getting lard from pastured/grass-fed/free-range (whatever) pigs. I bought mine from the co-op, and it comes from Grass Run Farm in Iowa.

Why the difference in saturated fat between the Crisco and the Spectrum?  Spectrum bases their shortening on palm oil, which is a highly-saturated tropical oil.  Crisco is more of the “we’re afraid to raise our saturated fat profile” line of thinking, so they rely instead on polyunsaturates.

Which leads me to my next question: what are they replacing trans-fats with, anyway? It’s not like food processors can just remove trans fat and have all their food still taste just as good.  It’s got to be replaced with something.  Searching around trying to find the answer to this led me to, among other places: a super creepy article from the “Homepage of the Food and Beverage Industry” that describes “The Four Paths to Sans Trans” — among them are replacing trans fats with interesterified fats and genetically modifying soy beans to get a soy-based oil that is friendlier to food processing.  NICE.  If the name alone doesn’t scare you, check out more info on interesterified fats.

Even if you are not a pie-making, cookie-baking fool, all of this should still concern you if you eat ANY PROCESSED FOOD AT ALL.

So yeah, you might say that I am now a lard convert.  Never thought I’d hear myself say that.  And it’s not like I’m going to start slathering it on everything I eat.  But in certain situations, it works really well, and it is MUCH less scary than the alternatives (although the Spectrum shortening is a bit less scary than the Crisco — that high polyunsaturate number in Crisco is a red flag to me).

To the people living in fear of saturated fat, think about this: our bodies need a little bit of saturated fat.  Many vitamins, such as E and D, are much easier for our bodies to assimilate if they accompany a bit of the good stuff.  On the other hand, our bodies most definitely do NOT need ANY amount of interesterified, trans, and whatever other highly-processed thing food processors want to tempt us with.  Did I mention that lard is high in vitamin D?  (So is butter, FYI.)

Finally, there are several sustainability aspects to this.  Palm oil, like that found in my Spectrum shortening, is a major contributor to deforestation in tropical areas.  Not to mention it has to be shipped all the way to the U.S., processed, and then shipped to me.  Lard is a byproduct, yo.  The lard I bought came from Iowa.  I could conceivably make lard myself, if I had the inclination.

So what do you think?  Are you willing to take the plunge and try it?  It took me a long time of staring at that container before I took a deep breath and used it, but now a little research both online and in the kitchen have turned me into a believer.

Update, November 6, 2010: I just found this article explaining more of the science behind interesterification, and also some other interesting information about saturated/trans/interesterified fats.  Check it out!

Update, February 24, 2011: Here’s a takedown of the new USDA nutritional guidelines, and some of the best questioning of the lipid hypothesis that I’ve seen in a long time.  A must-read!

Update, March 4, 2011: Wow, the mainstream media is really catching on. This was all over my Twitter feed todayCivil Eats says “If you work out the numbers, you come to the surreal conclusion that you can eat lard straight from the can and conceivably reduce your risk of heart disease.”  Awesome.

Update, February 23, 2012: Save the orangutans. Eat lard.