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Monday, March 14, 2016

Tallow and Lard: Staples of a Colonial Household


1883 ad in the Hawai'i newspaper The Daily Bulletin
In the modern world, we've been taught that fat is a bad thing. Always. But throughout history? Fat in various forms is a staple of life. Science knows now that the human body needs fats in order to properly utilize certain nutrients, that fat itself contains elements crucial to brain development and immunity. In survival settings, limiting the diet to certain kinds of meat actually leads to starvation because they aren't fatty enough.

Not only were fats a crucial part of the historical diet, but they were also day-to-day staples for the colonial household. Tallow, the product of rendered beef or sheep fat, was used to make candles and soap, or rubbed into leather items such as shoes to make them more durable. (It was also a key ingredient in pemmican, a food developed by North American native peoples.)

Rendered pork fat is known as lard, and has a host of similar uses, including as a substitute for butter when milkfats were scarce. It's most famous in our time for being the favored shortening in pie crust, where it produces that lovely, tender flake we all love so much.

What is rendering, and why is it important? Well, raw fats (straight from the animal) will spoil, like any other animal product, and rendering is the process of separating water content from the pure fat, and making it shelf stable. Wet rendering is done by boiling or steaming the raw fat and skimming off the liquid as it rises to the top, and produces a more mild-tasting lard, with a higher smoke point. Dry rendering is done by heating the fat directly over the heat, without water, and resulting lard is more strongly flavored, with a lower smoke point.

When a friend offered me 20 or so pounds of frozen pork fat, which she'd thawed with the intent of making her own lard then was hit with a family crisis, of course I said yes. I love making my own pie crust with "real" ingredients, and more than that, I was curious about the process and the end result.

My friend also gave me instructions for rendering the lard in a crock pot, which sounded so easy I had to try it. And I managed to remember to stop and take photos along the way, which I rarely do, so I decided to share them here.

First was cutting the sections of hog fat into chunks and putting them in my crock pot. If those look like intestines, it's because that's exactly where they were located--the sections of fat along the intestinal tract. Everything was very clean, though. I started to trim away the bits of tissue and blood vessels, then decided that our pioneer foremothers probably weren't as choosy about that as we would be, and wound up tossing most of it in the pot.

After leaving the crock pot to simmer overnight and deciding I wanted to speed up the finished product, I poured off the liquid into various jars (yes, those are mostly salvaged pickle jars, but lard keeps just fine in a dark, cool place), then moved the cracklings (all the bits of meat and tissue left from the rendering) over to my cast iron skillet to make them more, well, crackly.


If you've ever read about the rendering process in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, you'll know that they considered the cracklings a treat. They reminded me of sausage. And oh, the flavor! I was absolutely blown away by how good they tasted. And I'm not even a huge fan of pork!

After simmering the cracklings a while and draining off as much fat as I could, I bagged the cracklings for use later in cornbread and dressings.

The freshly rendered lard has a wonderful flavor as well. I can't wait to use it in the next batch of pie crust! I'm also curious to try rendering my own tallow from the frozen beef fat hidden in the bottom of my freezer ....

For the health benefits of pure, rendered lard, be sure to check out the abovementioned link at Mommypotamus. Fascinating! I suspect our forebears were more healthy than we think, and maybe from foods that we might not always guess. :)

11 comments:

  1. I've rendered my own lard for years. It's much healthier than shortening and tastes better too. When we get our pig butchered, I ask the butcher to run the fat through the grinder for me. He doesn't charge for that, and it cuts the rendering time in half.

    I have done it two ways, one is to put it in a sturdy stock pot with a lid on top of the stove and cook it down on a low heat for most of the day. The other method is to put in in a large turkey roaster and roast it in the oven until melted. The oven method produces a whiter end product than the stove top method.

    I pour 1 1/2 cups of liquid lard into wide-mouth pint jars and seal with canning lids. One fully cooled (overnight) I store it in my freezer until needed. I measure the 1 1/2 cups because that's what my pie crust recipe calls for, so it's easy to use.

    Most people should try this ... it's SO MUCH better than anything you can buy, and healthier too.

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    1. Awesome! Thanks for sharing your variation on the process. I wasn't thinking about premeasuring and sticking it in the freezer, but I'll definitely consider that next time. I couldn't believe how GOOD it tasted, too!

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    2. I never thought to save the cracklin's for cornbread and stuffing. LOVE that idea! Using the ground fat, the cracklin's are small, but still good!

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  2. Very interesting! Thank you, Shannon.

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    1. You're welcome!! Thanks so much for saying hi. :)

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  3. Fascinating Shannon !!! My mom was a big lard fan. She never rendered but may have as a young girl in s lumber camp. Thanks for the post!

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    1. You're welcome! It's funny how the old ways sometimes do turn out to be the beset ...

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  4. Very interesting. I used to make pie crust with lard rendered by the butcher. The link you cited had some great information about the health benefits of lard. Thank you.

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    1. So glad you found it useful! Thank *you for stopping by! :)

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  5. What an interesting article, Shannon! Thank you so much for sharing. I really didn't know the difference between tallow and lard, but now I do. lol! My mother always said you had to use lard to make the best pie crust, and I have to agree.

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    1. You're very welcome, Joan! Thanks so much for stopping to comment. :) There are some sources that actually put hog fat under the category of tallow as well, but I always understood it to be beef fat. What I found most interesting was its use as a substitute for butter, on bread. That surprised me less after tasting my own home-rendered lard!

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