The following is a guest post from my friend and partner in crime, Jet. Enjoy! – Christiana
When Christiana’s husband, Sam, mentioned over brunch that he was uncomfortable about ground beef and wished he could know the beef had come from only one steer while she was blinking back tears at the prospects of our concerns about the meat industry pointing directly to vegetarianism, it was a definite Eureka moment. The only way to make sure is to buy one animal and make arrangements for the slaughter and butcher. At last, we had an opportunity and an impetus to go in on an animal with friends. We sort of vaguely agreed that a pig would be more versatile and easier since we wouldn’t need additional investors. That was on a Sunday.
On Monday, I spent a couple of hours working at my regular job, before calling Christiana to talk about what had already become “our pig”. We emailed a local butcher we know who wasn’t set up to slaughter and break down a whole animal. A quick Google search for “Berkshire Pork Los Angeles” had us on the phone with Lefty Ayers from Reride Ranch in Lake Hughes. Lefty referred us to Kent Short at the Old Fashioned Butcher Shop in Santa Paula and we were on our way. It seems like you would need to be hooked up to buy and slaughter a hog. You don’t. It takes Internet access and about an hour.
In my case, “on our way” meant pulling every cook book off the shelf, purchasing another 3 with the advice of the lovely Celia Sacks, proprietress of Omnivore Books on Food in San Francisco, and preparing a list of recipes to try out for the Porktacular that was to come. As an aside, Celia is seriously awesome for lots of reasons, but not the least of which is that you can call her and receive truly amazing advice about any question having to do with books on food and superior service.
We had our interview with Kent on Wednesday, in which we demonstrated we were not too crazy to deal with, but too high maintenance from whom to take an order. Christiana asked, brilliantly, at our appointment whether his services would include rendering lard. They do not. She helpfully forwarded two blog posts re same later in the day. Frankly, it never even entered my head. This oversight is bordering on hilarious. We wound up with enough scraps to leave 40 pounds of meat and fat with Kent to grind and with which to make sausage and each brought home about 10 pounds of back fat and leaf lard in want of rendering. Our hog, as previously noted, had been eating almonds since April and barley for his entire life since weaning. There was a mind-numbing amount of fat with which to deal.
Christie, Kent’s awesome Aide de Camp, offered her suggestions on the proper rendering of lard. Her method involved actually cutting the fat with a knife, as opposed to grinding, and rendering it in a low oven with a mason jar of distilled water for 10 pounds, which would evaporate out, then additional water after removing the cracklings, which would sink to the bottom and filter out any impurities. She suggested further that one really needs an apple press to make killer cracklings and it was too bad we didn’t have one. A Google search for “render lard” surfaced various methods with and without water, on the stove top, in the oven, and in the crock pot. After consulting with Christiana, we settled on starting with the back fat, which could be used in savory applications, like the empanadas in Seven Fires or any of the dozens of applications in Maricel Presilla’s exhaustive Gran Cocina Latina even if I screwed it up. Worst case: we’d have the best chicken fry ever at some point in the next three years. The prized leaf fat would be addressed only with sufficient experience to be sure we’d wind up with colorless, odorless lard for pastry crusts.
After further deliberation, I settled on the crock pot and about a cup of water for 5.6 pounds of back fat. I planned to filter the lard with coffee filters and omitted Christie’s recommend second application of distilled water. Also, I cut the fat into a fine dice, as opposed to grinding it, because I don’t have one of these, and because Christie said it makes better cracklings, and because Kent’s son, Dylan, sharpened all of my knives(!).
Here’s the deal. Keep the fat in the fridge and work in small batches. Fat is really easy to cut when it is cold. It is really hard to cut when it is room temperature. Also? There is a ridiculously wide margin for error. It took 21 hours, 10 on low, before I gave up and turned off the slow cooker and went to sleep, another 7 on high, while I skipped working Monday morning, and another 4 during which Michael reluctantly and nervously watched it, while checking in hourly by telephone to describe how it looked and what had changed. After consulting with Christiana, certain I had overcooked it and distraught over winding up with something more like bacon grease, she forwarded a blog post in which a 3 day process is described. (She’s awesome like that). Michael shut it off and strained the liquid fat through a colander and several layers of cheese cloth into a bowl where it remained completely liquid until I came home 4 hours later to strain it, through a coffee filter inserted in a funnel into sterilized jars. I wound up with a gallon of perfectly white odorless lard in 3 quart jars and 2 half quart jars. I wish I had used all half quart jars as heritage lard and a recipe for empanadas now strikes me as the best gift ever. Sorry there is only one photo. I’m a guest blogger, not a real blogger, because I can’t get my shit together to get a real camera, learn how to photograph food, and document my cooking.
Most importantly, there is a tremendously wide margin for error when rendering lard. In retrospect, my anxiety, as is invariably the case, was unnecessary. I could have pulled it after the first 10 hours, or cooked it another 3. The cracklings can be cooked further in a high oven until the resemble pork popcorn. They are great with Chinese Five Spice and salt. They also taste like you shouldn’t even bother with the oatmeal and fish oil and you sure as hell don’t have any business buying an apple press to improve them, because who are you kidding, the heart attack is nigh. For the treasured leaf lard, I plan to pull it when the cracklings look weird and gray and there is plenty of liquid for all of the pies I could conceivably make in the next three years, or the outer boundary of the time it will keep in the freezer (official wisdom says one year). It will all be filtered into half quart jars.