I have long held that, were I required to limit my lifelong meat consumption to just one animal, it would have to be the pig. If I could have only one more meal of meat, it would be lamb, but a pig’s versatility makes it the premier eating animal. Spare ribs! Tenderloin! Bacon!
Raising my own pig has made it clear that spare ribs, tenderloin, and bacon are only the beginning. As Kevin and I work through scraps and hams and organs and weird cuts that never make it to the market (spider steaks!), the pig’s value becomes more and more apparent. Every part is good — even the fat.
I have a deep-seated suspicion of fat. Fat, in some forms, is bad for you, and even the fat that’s good for you can make you fat. I don’t use fat with the open-handed profligacy of some cooks (I won’t name names, but my husband knows who he is). I do, however, recognize that food is better with fat, and some foods are only worth eating if they’re absolutely loaded with it. Pie crust is one of those foods.
I’ve been making pie crust for over thirty years. While I don’t lay claim to being a world-class cook, I will say that, up until a couple years ago, my pie crust was pretty damn good. Now, I will go so far as to say that my pie crust is outstanding. The difference is pig. Pig, and butter.
My first experiment with larded pie crust was when we bought a half a pig from a local farmer. A half a pig has a great deal of fat on it, and I rendered it and reworked my crust recipe.
One taste, and I jettisoned the Crisco for good and all.
Rendering lard is the kind of kitchen chore I like – not a lot of work for a substantial and long-lasting benefit. A pound of lard goes a long way, and will keep indefinitely in a jar in the refrigerator. And it really isn’t a lot of work.
Start by cubing or grinding your lard. This is easier and less messy if it’s cold, so refrigerating it overnight is a good idea. The smaller the pieces, the more quickly it will render, so I run mine through the KitchenAid grinder, even though cleaning said grinder afterward is a job only a mother could love.
Once it’s chopped or ground, put the lard and a few ounces of water – five or six – in a skillet big enough to hold it comfortably, over low heat. The point of the water is to prevent the lard from browning at the beginning. Then, as the fat melts, the water evaporates out. It’s hard to predict how long it will take for all the fat to melt, as it depends on your heat, the size of your lard pieces, and the amount in the pan. Mine was done in about forty minutes.
When all the fat is melted and the leftover bits, known as cracklings, are golden brown, strain the fat. I do this in two stages: first through a sieve to get the big pieces out, and then through a coffee filters to get the crumbs.
There is some disagreement about what to do with cracklings. They are essentially deep-fried fat, an idea which I thought defied the laws of physics, but I also thought you should make pie crust out of Crisco, so shows what I know. In some circles, primarily the circles south of the Mason-Dixon line, crackings are a kind of delicacy, to be sprinkled on pulled pork or turned into biscuits.
I am lukewarm on cracklings. My chickens, however, are a flock of cackling crackling enthusiasts, so they get them.
Once you feed the cracklings to your chickens, your work is just about done. Your strained fat will be tan and viscous, and you want to pour it into jars before it solidifies and turns creamy white. Then, when it’s completely cold, make a pie crust (I even have a recipe), and you will be convinced that it’s all worthwhile.
If it’s enough to make you want to go whole-hog and get yourself a backyard pig, I just read that Sugar Mountain Farm is accepting deposits.