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Lard-di-dah: how to render animal fats | Food


Let’s talk about the four letter f-word: fats. Over the past 60 odd years they’ve been drenched in confusing controversy – to eat or not to eat, what kind should we eat, and according to who?

Animal fats have the worst reputation of all. I’m not here to argue the health facts – but please take the time to look at the research regarding what we replaced many old fashioned animal fats with, namely hydrogenated vegetable oils. Nutritionists suggest neither should play a major role in your diet – but many people who happily reach for margarine still flinch at lard.

When I talk about and write recipes, I often call for suet, rendered tallow, schmaltz, lard, ghee, butter, duck or goose fat, cold pressed olive, avocado or macadamia oil. Why? As anyone who has ever had duck fat roasted potatoes, or chips cooked in tallow can attest – it tastes better and it gives better results.

Animal fats have a high smoking point, so they’re good for cooking at high temperatures. If you’re someone who still chooses to eat meat, using animal fats in this way is something you should do sparingly – but when you do, it will be delicious.

I learned how to make lard when I was five, this has been a part of my culinary heritage. I learned it from my mother who learned it from her mother, and backwards it goes.

This whole thing – nose to tail, root to tip. It’s not new, it was the result of necessity. Delicious traditional cooking is universal, and comes in part from ingenuity in waste management.

If you’re already comfortable cooking with animal fat, make your own rather than buying it. It is very easy to do and will save you a lot of money.

Picking the cut

Different parts of the animal have different components of fats and they taste different too. For example, on a pig you would ask for leaf lard, which is fat from around the kidney. It does not have a ‘porky’ taste, and is the secret ingredient in many pie crusts – even sweet ones.

So, where do you get it? Butchers are a good place to start. You can also chat with them, ask them where their animals come from, about their welfare and how they were raised. Make it a point to go to butchers that bring in whole animals and break them down themselves.

If we as consumers don’t demand, and aren’t ready to pay a little extra for better quality food, we are unlikely to get it. Go one step further and ask about animals reared on farms that have an emphasis on regenerative agriculture methods.

Buying fat from a pastured source will not break the bank, because a little goes a very long way.

For schmaltz, you want to use the skin and fat of the bird. Once again ask your butcher, or reserve the skin in the freezer when you’re cooking other poultry dishes, until you have enough to render down.

Rendering the fat

I’ve rendered my fair share of chicken schmaltz, tallow and lard over the years. While I’ll use pork fat as an example, essentially the method can be applied to all manner of animal fats. You can substitute the direction with any you want.

The easiest and fastest way to do this is on the stove top, preferably with a deep flat bottomed saucepan that has an even heat distribution, but a wok will also suffice.

The two main ways suggested for rendering are wet (with water) or straight (without water). I do it straight as it involves one step less to process at the end, but this requires you to stay with your pan to prevent overcooking and essentially burning. If you prefer to turn on a slow cooker and leave it unattended, you are most welcome to – but be warned this method can take much longer, a few hours or so.

Let’s get to it. I promise you that after you’ve done this once, it is impossible not to want to do it again.

Take 1kg of pork leaf lard (from around the kidneys), but really do whatever quantity your heart desires. The thing to do here is freeze it first. By freezing the fat you will make it much more easily manageable to cut into, a whole lot less messy too.

From there, cut it into little cubes – no need to get your ruler out. Roughly the size of a 50c piece is adequate.

Pop all the lard into the pan and place onto the lowest heat element on your stove top. Stir the bottom very minimally, every 10 minutes or so. And in that time, prepare sterilised glass jars or a glass container that has an airtight lid.

In order to get the lard from the saucepan to the jars I use a large glass Pyrex measuring cup, on top of which I put a metal mesh strainer, but you can easily substitute this for a stainless steel bowl with a metal mesh strainer on top.

As you cook, delicious crispy bits will rise to the top. These are a bit like crackling, and you can add them to all sorts of delectable dishes. Prepare a kitchen towel or paper towel on a flat plate, that you can put the ‘crackling’ on to – use a mesh skimmer spoon if you have one to extract it.

This whole process takes about 20-30 minutes depending on your heat element. Keep watching it to avoid burning and overcooking. A good way to know when it is done is all the crackling will rise to the surface and look lightly fried. Turn the gas off and spoon these out onto your waiting plate.

Leave the lard to cool in the pan a little before you pour it over the strainer. Don’t skip the straining step, as this will prevent your lard from going rancid faster.

Jar your lard and lid it when it is cold. Use it as you would oil or butter, to cook anything and everything from stir frying, roasting, baking, shallow frying or braising. If you are making this at home, you aren’t likely to be rendering 3kg or more at a time, so the chance the fat will go rancid before you are able to use it all up is minimal. That’s unlike vegetable or nut oils, which surprisingly become rancid very easily if you keep them out of the fridge.

While it is certainly a “sometimes food”, for me at least it stirs the kind of satiety that eating commercial packaged, processed foods can never equal.

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