Not only does lard make the best pie crusts, it's lower in saturated fat than butter--if saturated fat bothers you. It doesn't bother me, in fact, the plaque levels in my heart have actually improved since I've started eating good saturated fats. (They've actually gone and looked, so I feel safe in saying this.)
The hardest part of making lard is finding a good source of pork fat. You're going to have to do a little digging, and it's important that you not just use any pork fat you find; you want to make sure the pig was properly cared for and fed right. Your average supermarket "butcher," and I use that term loosely, isn't going to have it; that pork is all factory farmed, and very few supermarket butchers cut whole carcasses any more. You may have more luck at a specialty market like Whole Foods, Wild Oats or the like, but be sure to inquire after the feeding practices.
Once you have found your fat, decide what you want to use it for. If you want it for pastries, try to find and use only the fat from around the kidneys--what's called "leaf" lard. I don't make much pastry, so I don't care about that. Chop the fat into at least 1" cubes, taking any meat chunks off in the process. Some folks put it through a meat grinder. In any event, you want small pieces; otherwise you won't get as much fat out. Heat your oven to 225°F. I use my cast iron dutch oven to render lard in. Put about a quarter-inch of water at the bottom of the pot; this keeps the fat from browning too much at the beginning, and it'll burn off in time. Add your chopped-up fat. Pop it in the oven for at least a couple of hours, stirring now and then. Eventually the chunks won't give up any more fat--it'll become obvious, the chunks will look the same after an hour as they did before. As you're doing all this there will be a distinct smell. Some people like it, some people don't. It's a little too intense for my comfort, frankly, which is why I try to do a bunch of lard at once. If you can do this outside, or in a canning kitchen if you have one, so much the better. Let the lard cool to lukewarm; while it's cooling is a good time to gather up your jars and lids and make sure they're clean and ready to go. There are various methods to filter out the bits of meat and unrendered fat--the cracklings--from the lard, but what I use is a paper coffee filter and cone. Ladle the still-liquid lard, skipping the bigger chunks, into the filter. Refrigerate the lard and use it within a month. If you've made more than you can use in a month, it freezes well.
Use it anywhere you'd use butter or shortening: To pop popcorn (the best!); to make pie crust; to fry eggs. In some cultures it's even spread on bread, topped with onions and salt, and called a sandwich. As for the leftover bits, the cracklings? Salt them and put them on salads or just munch on them. Josie loves them. We got more cracklings than we could eat, so we fed a lot of them to the chickens and used them as doggie and kitty treats.
For Stovetop rendering:
Cut the lard into small pieces and place in a pot over medium-low heat. The lard will start to slowly melt. Make sure to stir once in a while. After about 20 minutes a big portion of it will be melted. You will also at this point start to see the “cracklings” form. At this point you will want to be careful. Remember how bacon sputters? As moisture is released from the cracklings it will definitely sputter, and I even got a big splash of hot lard in my face at one point! When all of the sputtering is finished and the cracklings are floating, you are technically done. I let mine cook for a bit longer to get the cracklings a little more brown (don’t waste them, as they are quite yummy and can be used in many recipes too!). I think it took between 45 minutes and an hour to cook it. Line a fine sieve with cheesecloth or a coffer filter and strain through into a jar. It will be yellowish when hot, but turn white when cooled. The cracklings will be left in the sieve.
I followed the following great directions from here for oven rendering. I found it took about the same amount of time as the stovetop version. It was nice to have it contained, but I didn’t watch it quite as carefully because it was out of sight. “To render lard, grind it or chop it — this is easiest when then the lard is partially frozen — and put it in a 300-degree oven in a shallow casserole. Stir it often, and cook until the lard melts and the cracklings, called chicharrones in Spanish, are floating. For a roasted pork flavor, render the lard in a 350-degree oven until the cracklings are brown. Cook until the cracklings sink to the bottom. Strain your rendered lard through cheesecloth or a paper coffee filter. Cool and refrigerate for up to two months or freeze. Frozen lard lasts for more than a year. Save the cracklings or chicharrones to enrich cornbread, burritos or tamales. Home-rendered lard adds wonderful flavor to baked goods like cornbread and bizcochitos and enriches refried beans.”
HOW TO RENDER LARD #3
A pound or so of pig fat, either leaf lard or fat back. Leaf lard is the best grade of lard and is preferred for pastry, while fat back is the next-best grade of lard and is appropriate for frying. Each pound of fat will yield about a pint of lard.
A big pot
A lard stick (though a wooden spoon will suffice)
Some containers—Mason jars work nicely.
Open your kitchen window. After buying your fat, preferably from a farmer or butcher that treats its hogs humanely, chop it up into little pieces. In a Dutch oven or heavy, large pot, add about a half of a cup of water to the pot, and then add the cubed fat. On the stove, heat the pot on medium low, stirring occasionally (every 10 minutes). After the fat starts melting (about an hour), you’ll hear some very loud pops. Do not be alarmed—that is just the last gasp of air and moisture leaving what will soon become cracklings (little fried pieces of pork). Now is the time to start stirring more often. Soon after, the cracklings will start floating on the surface. Keep stirring frequently, but be careful—you don’t want the fat popping out of the pot and burning you. When the cracklings sink to the bottom, the lard has been rendered. Let it cool, and then pour it into containers through a colander or strainer lined with cheesecloth. The cracklings will be left behind in the cheesecloth and these make for a fine, fine snack, especially sprinkled over salad if that’s not too perverse for you. The lard will be a yellowish liquid. This is what it’s supposed to look like. Refrigerate it overnight and when it solidifies it will turn white. It will keep in the refrigerator for about three months, and the freezer for up to a year.
To render lard for baking, the best pork fat is kidney, back, or belly fat. Freeze the fat first to make it easier to handle–cutting up the fat is a messy job. Chop it into about 1-inch pieces. (Some people even grind the frozen fat. The smaller the pieces of fat you start with, the quicker it will render.) How much fat you render at once doesn’t matter–however much you want to work with at a time.
Polyface Pork fat (these come in 5 lb bags)
A Crock pot (a 4-qt holds 5 lbs of fat – very convenient huh?)
Strainer or cheese cloth or slotted spoon
Clean container to store your lard in (I use wide-mouth quart jars)
Thaw the lard. I usually set mine in the sink overnight. Put it into your crockpot. Turn your crockpot to LOW and let it sit all day until all of the fat is melted and appears clear. Pour it through your strainer or cheese cloth, or pull out the chunks of fat that are left. If you want to, you can fry these for cracklin’s. I disposed of mine. Pour the lard into your containers, let them cool just a bit, then refrigerate it. It will keep almost indefinitely in the fridge. Viola! You have made lard! It will harden in the fridge turning a beautful white. I have also run the crockpot over night and then strained it in the morning. Worked perfectly. 10 pounds of fat makes about 3 quarts of lard. For those of you who don’t have a crock pot – don’t despair! You can still make it. Just put the fat into a nice large pot and turn your burner onto low – as low as it will go. You will want to watch it a little more carefully and stir it on occasion to make sure that it doesn’t burn. Follow steps 2 & 3 like normal. Uses for lard: Use it for frying or sauteing anything – anytime you need an oil, just use the lard – try my fried chicken recipe. It will “wow” your family and guests. Use it in place of shortening in recipes. It’s much healthier for you. Pie crusts are excellent made with lard.