Introduction: Rendering Your Own Pork Lard- and Why You Might Want to Do It!

About: Originally from Michigan, I am currently living on the Spanish Riviera with my Spanish husband, our toddler, two dogs and four hens. I love to make fondant cakes for special occasions, but try to keep proces…

I don't remember a lot from my high school classes anymore, but something my Biology teacher told us really stood out in my mind; so much so that I remember it to this day.  He told us that when he was a kid people weren't overweight and sick, despite cooking with fats, using butter, and drinking whole milk.  He, of course, attributed it to my generation's lack of exercise.  I didn't doubt that a lack of exercise played a role, but it never made sense to me that a decrease in the amount of exercise was the only reason for the change in the way we look and feel.
It wasn't until years later that it started to make sense to me.  So, maybe it wasn't in spite of our reduction in fats that we have gotten more ill and overweight, but rather because of it.  Fats have been replaced by sugar which has since been shown to fuel cancer, bring up cholesterol levels, and cause, either directly or indirectly, heart disease and many of the problems that we can develop health-wise.  Not only are people finally realizing that a low fat diet isn't as good for you as was once thought, but neither are the supposedly healthier fats (ahem, think margarine) that we have traded for the traditional fats that our ancestors used.
Years ago tallow (made from beef fat, aka. suet) and lard were used quite commonly used in cooking.  If you actually look at the profile of traditionally made and rendered animal fats, they don't really look that bad.  They have a high percentage of monounsaturated fats, the ones that are supposed to be so good for you in olive oil.  What is supposed to be bad about them is the also high percentage of saturated fats, but little by little researchers are realizing that saturated fats were likely unfairly demonized.  Even at my last CE course about nutrition several years back, we were already being advised that coconut oil, despite being so high is saturated fats, was one of the healthiest fats that you can cook with because of its stability, amongst other benefits.  Even a healthy oil like olive oil isn't necessarily so healthy once it is heated to the high temperatures needed for frying, so it is better reserved for using raw.
I have come to believe that the more natural, and less processed something is, the more likely that it is good for you.  I'm not an expert, though, but rather someone who spends a lot of time reading about these things.  The truth is that once saturated fats were demonized, they weren't studied much anymore, so there really isn't much information available about them.  What I can say is that I couldn't find any real studies that would show that they actually were bad.  In fact, certain diets, like the GAPS diet incorporate using animal fats as the fats of choice for trying to heal the body.
I put off trying to render myself for quite awhile, though, because somehow rendering fat seemed like it was going to be something very difficult or scary to do.  I had gotten over my intimidation to all the new words for me like suet and tallow, and the negative connotations to the word lard, but that drove me to buy some lard from the store.  The problem?  Supermarket lard isn't very good.  It usually has other ingredients added and just doesn't have the same taste or texture that you get with homemade.  Still, I kept reading about how other people rave about foods cooked in animal fats, or how flaky pastries and pie crusts become when made with it.  Plus, I love mantecados, a Spanish shortbread made with lard that is very popular here at Christmas.  So, I finally tried it myself.

What you will need:
-Pork fat (I usually use around 2-3 pounds)
-crock pot or stove and pan
-water (optional)

Step 1: Step One: Obtain Your Pork Fat of Choice, and Cut Into Small Cubes

I decided to render lard because pig fat is very easy for me to find here now that I'm living in Spain.  I don't even have to ask anybody for it, so I don't have to worry about someone looking at me like I'm crazy for wanting to buy animal fat.  I can just go to the supermarket and pick up a tray of what is called "tocino" here, or I can ask for it at any meat counter.  Tocino is the "fatback," or the back skin of a pig with a layer of fat on it.  They use it in traditional dishes like the Valencian cocido which is also known as puchero.
To make a more tasteless lard, the supposedly highest quality "leaf lard," one should render the visceral fat of the pig.  This is the fat in the region that surrounds the kidneys.  For making pastries, people usually choose that lard so as not to end up with a pork flavored pie.  I actually quite like the lard to have a slight taste of pork, though, so I don't mind using the fatback for rendering lard.
To begin, take the fat that you have obtained and cut it into small cubes.  If you find it difficult to cut, they say that it is easier if you slightly freeze the fat for a little while.  I haven't had much difficulty cutting ever, so I haven't personally done it, but I have kept the tip in mind just in case I ever get difficult-to-cut fat.  :)

Step 2: Step 2: Heat the Fat Over Low Heat

Now, there are a few ways to actually render the lard.  You can do it with or without adding water, and you can do it either over the stove or in the crock pot.  By now, I have tried all of the different methods of rendering lard, and don't really have much of a preference.  If I'm in a hurry, I use the stovetop, but if not, I find the crockpot method to be a little less messy.  With low heat, the fat doesn't spatter all over the place when you lift the lid to ladle off some of the lard.
In the crockpot, I use little to no water because I haven't had problems with the fat burning ever.  With the stovetop method, though, I have added some water, just in case, to prevent burning.  I don't add a lot because I want it to all evaporate by itself in the process.  If it doesn't evaporate, you have to find a way of separating out the water in the end.  I have never had to worry about that.
So, no matter how you decide to do it, all you really have to do to render lard is to heat the pieces of fat over a low heat.

Step 3: Step 3: Strain Off the Liquid Lard

After a little while, you will start to see a transparent yellowish liquid forming.  That liquid is your rendered lard.  You can start to ladle some off, and strain it into another container for storing.
As the yellow liquid starts to cool, it will start to solidify a bit and will get whiter and whiter.

Step 4: Step 4: Prepare the Cracklings for Eating- Yum!!

You will notice that as the fat is being rendered, you will be left with some solid bits.  These are called cracklings.  I strain them out and put them on a baking sheet in the oven to bake off any excess fat that remains.  I love to snack on the cracklings, but have to admit that I'm not exactly sure why mine come out so differently each time.  I have had them come out relatively soft, but I have also had them come out with the skin part as hard as a rock.  I can't figure out why I get such different results with the same cut of fat, doing more or less the same thing each time.
In any case, I have found a way to save the cracklings when they do come out hard (like in the picture this time).  After drying them out more in the oven, I then fry them again in hot, liquid lard.  They puff up and turn into pork rinds which are different than the cracklings (I'm not sure why-considering how they are made!!), but also quite tasty.

Step 5: Step 5: Store and Use Your Lard

Once the rendered lard has cooled off a bit, store it in the refrigerator.  It will solidify and turn white, and will once again liquify when you use it for cooking.  
It should last for quite awhile in the fridge.  I have noticed that after several weeks, one of my batches started to taste less fresh.  That is probably a good sign that it is starting to turn rancid.  Even rancid lard can have uses, though.  It can be incorporated into something like homemade soap!  Another possible future Instructable??