Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Backfat or Not?

Maybe some of you remember that I raise pigs every year. I get the piglets in the early summer and we take them to harvest (or slaughter) in very early winter. This year I raised three pigs and I have been trying in earnest to cook all the different cuts of meat so they tasted exceptional – thereby doing justice to the animals i raised.

This is much easier said than done. I’m a self-taught cook and not a chef by any means. Every year, I ask for cookbooks for Christmas. My go-to books this winter are Bruce Aidells' Complete Book of Pork and Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's Charcuterie: The Craft of Smoking, Salting, and Curing. We’ve also been reading mainstream books about raising food -- including Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The Farmer and I know we are living a life these two authors probably would love to live – raising our own meat in a good and respectful way. Perhaps you too have read these books – they were both on the bestseller’s lists for months.

Taking care of the animals, once they are slaughtered and in the freezer, is different from feeding and caring for them daily. It starts out with the order at the slaughterhouse. The butcher asks me lots of questions which I just hope I answer correctly. Not that there is a right or wrong answer. My answers though will determine how I cook the meat and fit it into our daily schedule. It’s different than going to the grocery store and picking up a pork loin.

The butcher, with his New Hampshire Yankee accent, asks me questions: Chops – how thick? Loins – how many ribs? Shoulders – fresh or smoked?; Do you want your hocks smoked or fresh?; Hams – fresh or smoked? Hams – sliced, whole, or half? Bacon (or belly fat) smoked or fresh? Do you want the feet?

Over the past few years, I have figured out how to answer him by trial and error. I’m slowly figuring out how to cook different cuts to make them taste the best they can. There are lots of parts of a pig, once slaughtered, that most American people never deal with (the French on the other hand have a use for everything!). I am taking it as a challenge and learning as I go – similar to experimenting with a new knitting technique such as fair isle or lace or cables. It’s a fun way to spend a cold winter season – reading, planning and cooking.

Every year, the butcher asks me “Do you want the fat back?” I, of course, with my waste not - want not philosophy, have always aswered “yes.” I am inheretly frugal. Although not a Yankee by birth, I seem to be picking up lots of my adopted New England's traits. When Julia and I pick up the pigs (or pork as we now refer to them), there are enormous slabs of fat attached to the skin of the pig plopped atop of the banana boxes loaded with perfectly wrapped loins, shoulders, and ribs. The hair has been shaved from the skin – but they look like they should – the skin from the animals I have been feeding for five or six months.

When I get home from the slaughterhouse, I stuff all it in the freezer. Slowly, I work my way through the pile of meat over a few months, moving aside the backfat each time I have to dig for the perfect roast. The past few years, after months of moving the backfat around, I have given up and fed it to the chickens.

I’m proud to say that this year, this didn’t happen. For the past few weekends, I have been working on my “lard project.” When I began, The Farmer was not at all startled. In fact he was encouraging. He told me that there was always a large square box of lard in his refrigerator when he was growing up. His mother did make the most amazing pies and evidently her secret ingredient was lard.

I have persevered. It started out slow. For my first batch, I followed the instructions found in Bruce Aidells' Complete Book of Pork and cut the fat up into tiny 1/2" inch squares. It wasn’t easy – I had to use surgical scissors to hack through the skin. Then I baked it at 350 degrees until it smelled done and there was lots of liquid in the bottom of the 8” sided pot I used. The tall pot is essential - so that the fat doesn’t burn and catch fire in the oven. But honestly, that cutting into small pieces was a nightmare. It took so long, I cursed my way through it. The fat cooked slowly and started to smell a bit like roast pork. When it was done after a few hours, there was a large amount of clear liquid in the bottom of the pot and lots of mighty crunchy bits of pigskin or "cracklings" floating around. We shared them with my chickens after tasting a few.

This weekend, with the advice of my friend Kay who owns a bakery and is a chef, I cut the backfat into pieces about 4 to 5” square. This was a huge timesaver. When the fat was rendered (that is the proper term), I strained the liquid through a fine sieve into some canning jars and stashed them in the fridge wondering what I was going to do with all of it.

I made some oat biscuits substituting the lard for butter weight for weight and they were really flaky and tasty. I’m not much of a pie baker but I think I’ll try some crusts for chicken and meat pot pies this winter.

Do you have lard-y memories of earlier days? What were the favorite recipes your grandma cooked with lard? I’ve got a bunch of it and I’ve got to cook my way through it somehow! Any help will be greatly appreciated.

Here are some good lardy links to read if you are interested.
From Food and Wine: Lard - The New Health Food
From The Seattle Times: The Real Thing


Diane said...

We also made lard when I grew up on an Iowa farm. My grandma, a fabulous farm cook, also swore by lard in pie crusts -- none of that new-fangled Crisco in her kitchen.

She also made cookies with cracklings, although mostly we kept a bag of them in the mudroom and gave our border collie one handful every day. We always thought it kept his coat shiny. More importantly, that dog probably needed the calories. He had shelter, but really lived outdoors in our cold, cold winters.

I'm looking forward to meeting you at the Textile Center in Mpls.

sc said...

I also use the lard for our livestock guardian dog. He is outside year round. We are in snow covered central Ontario. Mixed with bird seed, it works well for wild birds, and there is always soap.

Leslie said...

I've never kept chickens but have been the substitute keeper when my neighbor goes on vacation. She always stipulates that the chickens be given no protein matter so I was a bit surprised that you're feeding fatback to the hens. Is there any advantage other than more calories for the winter?

Katie said...

I've never made my own lard but I do swear by it for great roast potatoes.
I also use it in pastry, whatever the fat amount I do about half lard, half butter, this stops it being too short. Just lard could lead to a very colourless, slightly odd tasting pastry imo.

Patricia said...

As long as it doesn't taste like pork, you could use it for cookies, and cakes.


melissaknits said...

Chickens must have been in heaven. Mine get all ga-ga when they see me coming with their special treat - sardines or tuna fish.

You're making me think that next year I'll get the fat back. We never do. But now I am tempted.

Luni said...

We raised our own pork when I was a child. However, my mother didn't make lard (she used Crisco :). Occasionally she made cracklins, since my dad loved them. One thing I notice now is that the pork I buy at the grocery is excessively lean. The fat is almost all trimmed off. I remember how much better the chops tasted when there were bones and a 1/2" strip of fat around them. You didn't have to eat the fat, it just provided flavor and kept the meat from being too dry. So maybe if you are getting your chops and roasts trimmed, you might try telling them to leave some fat on.

cricket said...

Shirley Corriher's Touch of Grace biscuits are nearly miraculous, especially when we use super-duper fatty cream from our local dairy (I do not use this cream to whip, as it turns to butter too fast!) The recipe is found in Cookwise, and is also around online from various cooking shows and interviews she did. It won't get you too far through that lard, but it will help. As would some good old southern-style collard greens, and for those you can use fatback straight up, I believe, cracklin's and all.

lizardknits said...

My Grandmother not only used the lard from her pigs in cooking and baking, she used the lard to make lye soap too.

Lora said...

My grandma used lard for soap. And I'd pass on the recipe if I could only figure out what the heck she meant when she only used two words (although in fairness, she used each of them twice) and two different temperatures. Honest. That's all that's written on a piece of paper under the heading "soap" I found in one of her cookbooks.

Ask my dad about lard (having grown up on a farm in WI) and he will tell of fond memories spreading it on fresh baked bread and eating it, plain.

Margaret said...

I use lard and a small amount of butter for pie crust - and it comes out light and tasty.

My husband is Italian and in his family the "best" tomato sauce includes at least 3 types of meat - and one of his favorites is to take a piece of pig skin (available at the grocery in our very italian town) which is layed out, sprinkled with pine nuts, raisins, basil, parm. cheese and then rolled up and tied with twine before being dropped into the cooking sauce.

I can't quite bring myself to eat it, but he loves it and it does add a nice flavor to the sauce . . .

Anonymous said...

Well, others have preceded me with the soap idea. I have just been reading Alden Amos' Big Book of Handspinning and there is a good recipe in there for homemade soap using lard. He talks of using it for (among other things) washing fleeces.

I borrowed it through my library on interlibrary loan; I am sure you could do the same. As a reference tool, I wish it was permanently in my collection. Best of luck if you try it, please be sure to tell us all about it!

Diane H K in Greenfield! said...

We raised hogs! We rendered lard! I loved the cracklings. We usually cut the fatback even smaller than what you did, which also made for smaller cracklings. I loved cracklings.

'Course, I'm a vegetarian now...

My German grandparents gave me lard spread on fresh bread when I'd visit them. That's what they ate in Germany, and they brought that habit with them to the States. They'd buy fatback and render it, as they didn't have a farm here like they'd had in Germany. Grandpa always swore that consuming a tablespoon of good lard every day kept acne away.

Oh, and when you finish rendering, you can wrap the cracklings in cheese cloth and squeeze even more lard out of them. Let them cool a bit first so you don't get burned.

Pie crusts. And biscuits. And you can grease your pans with the lard before frying just about everything.

If you're completely overwhelmed by the quantity of lard, mix some up with birdseed and put it out in a suet feeder! We used to do that when we had more lard than we could consume.

wyldthang said...

Hi! lard is awesome stuff ;0) I save the lard from the nitrite free slabs of bacon we get from the local meat packer. For pastry crust use half butter and half lard-there is something about the lard and butter having different melting temps that makes the flaky crust. I've also used lard in cookies, but they did taste bacony(not a problem though, it was oatmeal), very melt in the mouth. We feed the extra to the chickens.

Becky said...

Growing up in the Midwest, my dad had a farm for a weekend hobby. He raised beef cattle as they require less supervision. Each year, we'd take a calf to slaughter. One of the byproducts was suet. I don't know its exact composition, but we'd hang it in special bird feeders. The birds were in heaven!

Years later when I got a "real" job, I headed down into the deep South. The lunch restaurants routinely had fat back on their buffets. I think I took a small bite once having a hard time getting beyond that. The "locals" would rave about it and just laugh at me for not sharing in their specialty:)

Simmy said...

I guess you're just going to have to try Lardy Cake aren't you. Here's a link to a description of it:

Tom made it for me last Mother's Day and it was divine but I bet every mouthful has about 1000 calories in it! Shall I find you a recipe?

BTW boys are desperate to come back to visit the good old US of A as I am. I think wiht the move though it might be France this summer.

Janet said...

I enjoy reading your blog, per usual. I've nominated you for a You Make My Day award.

ellen said...

This reminds me of the hog butchering in Little House in the Big Woods.(I think it was that one!) They used every part of the pig except the squeal. I think that Pa made a balloon for the girls out of the pig's bladder...not suggesting you go that far! We as Americans do waste a lot, don't we, with our politically correct dietary habits now.
Our boys raised pigs and showed them at the county fair. I'll never forget the time we were having some home grown ham and our eldest looked up with a mixture of sad eyes and a half smile and queried, "Is this Gilda?"

Anonymous said...

I have no lard memories of my own, but my mother-in-law told me that when she was a child and wanted a snack, her mother would tell her to make herself a lard sandwich. I guess, after reading Lora's comment above, that that was more common than I thought.

It's wonderful that you know and respect where your food is coming from.


Knitting Linguist said...

What a treasure trove of yummy food! My nana made all of her pie crusts with lard. She also used to make pork pies (she was French-Canadian), so the pork went into the pies, and the lard went into the crust. Out here, if I can find a Mexican restaurant that makes its chips with lard, I go there -- they just taste so much better!

Barbara30 said...

My family's pork memories are about sausage rather than lard.

My dad's job as a little boy was to hold the basin to collect the blood to make black pudding (blood sausage). Farm families weren't squeamish about where their food came from.

My mother still makes Plum Pudding for Christmas dessert using ground suet.

My parents are from Ireland so some of these dishes may be unfamiliar to Americans.

ZooterToot said...

TAMALES! the Masa dough in tamales calls for lard.
Then fill them with roasted pork shoulder, or cheese. It is a good idea to have a friend or two help with the labor and then divvy up the fruits of your labor; they are fairly easy to make, just time consuming. They freeze well too.
You can order corn husks or banana leaves online if you don't have access to them.

Jan said...

I use lard for cookies - chocolate chip & peanut butter, mostly, and they don't taste bacon-y at all - more like yum! It's also great for frying - especially chicken and crispy tacos.

madonnaearth said...

I don't know about the lard, but you can soak room temperature cracklings in milk until they're soft, drain them, and mix them into cornbread. I wish my aunt had an exact recipe; she makes the best from scratch cornbread I've ever had, seconded only by my mom's.

Martha said...

Thank you so much writing about lard. Who would have ever thunk I would write that sentence. Between your blog and the lard links, I learned a lot of stuff that I never had any idea about. Thanks for the "food for thought."

Lynn said...

You ARE a brave soul! I have no lard suggestions but my mother makes KILLER gingersnaps using bacon fat. Apple-smoked is really spectacular....

knittingiris said...

People around here SWEAR that rendered bear fat makes THE very best pie crust.
We had a friend who stayed with us for a few months one time and she rendered a few canning pots worth of bear fat on our woodstove, giving us a few jars worth like that to keep.
We deep fried regular and sweet potato french fries in it. You can strain it out afterwards and reuse it several times for this purpose.
Your post instantly reminded me of Little House in the Big Woods, too.