Lard was an important cooking fat in the U.S. until the post-war years, when vegetable oils and vegetable-oil shortenings came to be viewed as healthier alternatives. Unfortunately, those alternatives eventually proved to have flaws of their own -- most notably cholesterol-spiking trans-fats -- which revived interest in natural, old-fashioned lard. It's simple to make at home, requiring some patience but minimal skill or effort.
Sourcing the Fat
The raw material for lard is nothing more or less than pork fat. If you have freezer space, you can simply trim the fat from your roasts and chops until you have 3 or 4 pounds of it. Artisanal butchers, or farmers at your local market, can often provide you with several pounds at a time if you order in advance. The best fat to start with is the leaf lard, a block of extra-dense fat from around the kidneys. It makes the palest, mildest-tasting lard of all.
Start with very cold lard, which is easiest to handle. Straight from the refrigerator or barely thawed from the freezer is best.
Chop the fat coarsely with a sharp knife, or pulse pieces of fat in your food processor until it's chopped but not pasty.
Mound the fat into a slow cooker, Dutch oven or roasting pan, and heat it gently. Use the Low setting of a slow cooker, or an oven set to 200 or 225 F. On a stovetop burner, use the lowest temperature you can manage.
Stir the fat frequently as it heats and begins to melt, otherwise it will stick to the bottom and begin to brown. Continue until your pot is full of melted, rendered-out fat with a surprisingly small quantity of rendered-out crunchy pieces -- the cracklings -- floating in it. Depending on how much fat you render at once, this may take all day.
Strain the finished lard through several layers of cheesecloth into sterile heatproof jars, and refrigerate or freeze it for later use.
Mild or Savory
The lower your temperature, the milder-tasting -- and more suitable for baking -- the lard will be. Lard from the first half of the rendering process is also milder than lard from the second half, so you might opt to strain it out separately before letting the rest render. Label mild and "porky" batches separately, using neutral lard for baking and reserving savory batches for cooking.
Mild-flavored lard makes superbly flaky pastry and surprisingly delicate cakes and cookies. Savory lard lends a distinctively silky richness to Mexican and Eastern European foods, which traditionally relied on it heavily. It's also a superior fat for fried foods, creating a perfectly crisp and golden crust.
The cracklings left over from the rendering process are a valuable ingredient in their own right. Add them to muffins and cornbread for a savory accent, or use them in casseroles or egg dishes.