If you look at pictures of pigs from more than half a century ago, you’ll see that most of them look a lot fatter than today’s commercial animals. That’s because the pork industry took a big hit when the medical community targeted fat in the mid-20th century. Old-fashioned lard pig breeds quickly fell out of favor, and pork began being advertised as “the other white meat.” Hogs are making a comeback today, though, thanks to the increasing demand for pastured pork and the rising popularity of charcuterie, or cured meats.
Because friends know how health-conscious I am, they’re sometimes surprised to hear me talk about cooking with lard. But pork from our heirloom American Guinea hogs is my favorite meat. The American Guinea hog has outstanding flavor, is a good charcuterie pig, and has an abundant supply of lard.
Lard is my preferred cooking fat for meats and vegetables, and I only use lard from our own farm’s pastured hogs. Commercial lard, normally found in grocery stores, has been so highly processed that it contains trans fats, which are best avoided in a healthy diet. Our lard is about 50 percent monounsaturated fat, which is what makes olive oil so healthy. I can’t grow olives in Illinois, but I can raise pigs!
If you’re interested in self-sufficiency, keeping pigs is the easiest way to produce your own cooking fat. Rendering lard can be done in a slow cooker or in your oven without purchasing any fancy equipment. You can find my advice for rendering lard in your own kitchen on Page 20; in addition, here are a few of my favorite lard-based recipes.
One of the reasons we switched from raising Tamworths to American Guinea hogs is that the latter are a lard breed. Although they’re about half the size of Tamworths at harvest, we end up with three or four times as much lard. A 100-pound American Guinea typically provides about 20 to 25 pounds of fat.
Rendering lard is incredibly simple; you’re just melting fat. These instructions are for dry rendering, which means no water is added during the rendering process.
Fat renders fastest if you cut it into small pieces. The smaller the pieces, the faster they melt. I chop mine into pieces about an inch across. Five pounds of lard fits well into my 4-quart cast-iron Dutch oven, but you can use any oven-proof dish. Place the lard-filled dish in a 250-degree Fahrenheit oven for a couple of hours, and then check it. The fat should be mostly melted, but expect to see some floating translucent bits. If the fat is still white, it hasn’t melted. Put it back in the oven and check again in 30 minutes. If you’re unsure, press the pieces against the side of the dish with a fork. They’ll smash completely if melted; if you meet resistance, though, the fat hasn’t fully melted yet.
After the lard is rendered, ladle it through a colander or sieve into another bowl or heat-proof glass container. Some solid pieces of fat, called “cracklings,” won’t melt during the rendering. Strain them out and save them for later. They’re great for refried beans and other dishes where you want a particularly porky flavor. You’ll want to save all the lard you rendered, so use the bottom of another bowl to press the cracklings into the colander to squeeze out any remaining liquid.
Let the lard cool down a bit before pouring it into sterilized Mason jars. Cover the jars and store them in a refrigerator, or freeze for up to a year. You can also refrigerate the cracklings in a glass container. Plan on getting about 3 pints of lard from 5 pounds of fat.