Monday, February 11, 2013

Rendering Fats

Tallow and Lard

Tallow and lard are two fantastic cooking fats, each with their own unique properties.  While it takes a few hours of fairly passive work to produce these kitchen staples, you can easily make enough to last for a year in one kitchen session.  I think that it's a shame that both of these fantastic ingredients have fallen out of favor in so many modern kitchens.  Whether for browning meats, sauteing onions, baking pies, or the beginnings of an incredible gravy, there are some instances when you really can't substitute for the originals.  By making your own from known sources of animal fat, you'll also be able to compliment your diet with a fantastic array of healthy lipids. 


Many of the recipes that we post here do in fact call for either lard or tallow as a minor ingredient, so I think that it would be worthwhile not only to talk about the applications of each, but also why we use them and go over a simple step by step of how you can keep your own kitchen stocked with both.

To start, why should we go through the trouble of producing either tallow or lard, and for that matter what exactly are they?  Both are the rendered forms of animal fat from either cattle (tallow), or pigs (lard).

Tallow on the left; Lard on the right

Tallow is mostly composed of heat stable saturated fats (55%) and monounsaturated fats (40%).  The small amount of polyunsaturated fats will have a favorable ratio of close to 1:1 omega 3 to omega 6 if you source your beef fat from pasture raised cows.  Tallow is naturally resistant from going rancid.  The fats from pasture raised cows also contain natural levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).  Food fried in tallow has excellent flavor and tends to absorb less fat than that fried in vegetable oils.    Anytime that I want to impart some subtle, almost beefy flavor to a food such as when browning meat, or cooking onions, or making gravies, tallow is my first choice.

Lard is actually made up mostly of monounsaturated fats, but like tallow contains a healthy compliment of saturated fat as well, including the antimicrobial palmitoleic acid.  Lard is softer than tallow when chilled (tallow is hard and nearly waxy, while lard tends to be very firm like butter).  Lard also imparts no flavors to the dish, but will make anything cooked in it exquisitely crisp.  Sometimes I will rub lard on the skin of a chicken before roasting, but it's also fantastic for frying shrimp, cooking potatoes, and as a must-have ingredient in pie crusts. 

For more details on the actual fatty acid contents of both tallow and lard, I would refer you to this excellent book:  Know Your Fats

The advantage of rendering your own lard and tallow are that you can be very picky about the animals that you select when buying the fat.  "Garbage in, garbage out" applies here, and if you want to heave healthy fats, much like healthy meats, you must choose animals that have been fed and raised properly.  Even pasture raised, grass-fed beef fat from the small-scale farm near me where I buy most of my meat from runs only about $3/lb, so it is well worth the investment.  Through rendering the fats, they become easier to work with (rather than cut off a slab of fatty tissue, you can scoop out the desired quantity from a jar) and also last longer in cold storage (the water and proteins and other bits that might rot have been removed from the fat). 

All that being said, it is time to produce some rendered fats.  The following example uses beef fat, but the same process applies for pork fat, lamb fat, or even butter (which would yield ghee).

Begin by thawing out the fat that you have obtained, if necessary.  At this point, the material that we are referring to as 'fat' is actually a collection of lipids, connective tissue, water, blood vessels, and possibly some bits of muscles as well.  The goal is to extract only the lipids (fats) from this mass of animal fat.
several pounds of hard beef fat from a local pastured cattle

 In order to expedite the rendering process, it is necessary to increase the surface area of the fat.  do so by cubing the fat into 1/2-1" pieces with a sharp knife.
Place the pieces of fat in large stock pot and add just enough water to barely cover the bottom of the pot.  While not entirely necessary, starting out with the water in the pot will help prevent browning or burning of the fat.  This is not something that we really want to cook or impart any such flavor to.
Place this on the stove and turn on to medium low.  The water in the pot should just begin to simmer, and the fat should not fry.  If that fat starts frying you have the heat up too high.
Eventually, the fat will warm up and begin to soften.  Some of the actual fat itself will begin to melt out of the chunks, along with some water.  The liquid that begins to accumulate in the pot is a mixture of water and liquid fat.  Again, make sure that the heat is kept low enough so that you don't end up frying any of this.

After about an hour, perhaps longer, the chunks will have shrunk quite noticeably and the liquid will probably be bubbling away.  While the chunks of tissue will begin to get darker, ensure that the fat isn't frying by observing to see if there is any smoke.  The bubbles forming should be solely from the rapidly boiling water that is now escaping your pot.  This operation will take a couple of hours, so don't try to rush it by burning or frying your tallow.
Once the fat chunks have reduced in size considerably, it is time to begin straining out the liquid.  I recommend using a coffee filter, as cheesecloth really isn't fine enough to capture all of the little particles that are going to be suspended in the liquid.

 Eventually the pieces of fat will have given up all of the liquid that they can and will begin to get much darker.  When this point is reached, stop the rendering process and either drain and reserve the little tissue nuggets or discard them.  Some people like saving these to add to soups, but personally I have not had much luck with that.  Transfer all of the filtered liquid to a very clean pot and bring the temperature up to 250F.  If the liquid does not bubble, it is pure fat and the rendering process is over.  If the liquid bubbles, it is merely the remaining water boiling off, so hold the temperature fairly constant until the bubbling ceases.  Don't overheat the tallow or you may potentially burn it once all of the water has boiled off.
liquid tallow looks almost golden in color

Liquid tallow from grass fed cows will have a yellow to amber appearance.  The fat tends to accumulate vitamin E, CLA, and beta carotene that are lacking from grain-fed feedlot cattle.  It will be yellowish to slightly off-white once cooled.  Leaf lard (below) should be almost totally clear.  It will solidify to a snow-white solid once cooled.
liquid leaf lard, poured into jars and cooling down

Store a little of your rendered fat in a glass container in the refrigerator.  The remainder can be jarred and put into the freezer for long term storage, or you can even pour it into muffin tins and then freeze the little fat pucks in vacuum bags until you need them. 

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