One of my winter tasks is rendering tallow from beef or lard from pigs. When we butcher, I get all the scraps, bones and fat in several big boxes. I sort out bones for the dogs and chickens (who will peck off the meat fragments until the bones are clean) and may freeze some depending on how much freezer space I have. Scraps are sorted into mostly meat or mostly fat piles. The mostly meat pile may be frozen immediately, fed to the pigs or turned into chicken balls. The mostly fat piles are frozen in gallon-size freezer bags and shoved into various freezer nooks and crannies to await my attention.
Raw fat is rarely just fat — it has scraps of meat attached and may have lymph channels or blood vessels running through it. All of these must be removed prior to rendering or they may make the tallow taste meaty or burned. Properly rendered tallow has almost no flavor and lard is tasteless. Start by sharpening your knives and keep the sharpening tool handy, as this job is much easier with a sharp knife. Cold fat is easier to work with.
To remove the meat, hold the knife blade at a right angle to the fat and scrape the small pieces until they separate from the fat. For larger chunks, cut a small vertical incision in front of the meat edge. Turn the knife so the blade is parallel and pointing toward the meat.
Cut sideways until the meat scrap loosens from the fat. Muscles are covered with a tough fibrous tissue called fascia; in many cases, once you get it started, you can grab the edge of the fascia and just pull the piece of muscle loose from the fat. Lymph channels will look like round ribbons of a reddish jellied material. Cut them out by cutting down on each side and lifting them from the fat. You’ll lose a little fat this way but the lymph is too soft to cut.
Now you need to grind the meat—I use my Kitchen Aid meat grinder attachment for my big mixer. A food processor also works. Be careful not to overload it and use only well-chilled fat. If you don’t have a grinder or processor, cut the fat in the smallest pieces you can manage. Think finely diced onion. Small pieces render more quickly and completely. You have three options for the actual rendering: stovetop, oven or crockpot. Well, if you have one and you’re rendering several pigs worth of lard, you could also use a big iron kettle over an open fire, but I usually do this job in small sections throughout the winter. For stovetop cooking, put the ground or cut up fat in an appropriately sized heavy duty pan, preferably stainless steel or cast iron. Add about a cup of water to prevent the fat from burning as it first starts to cook. The water will evaporate. Set the burner to the lowest possible heat; if your stove tends to burn hot, make a flame-tamer of a round twist of aluminum foil and place that between the burner and the bottom of the pot. Flame-tamers are more likely to be necessary on electric stoves. If you choose the oven method, put your fat in an uncovered baking dish and put it in the oven at about 300°. Stir occasionally. The oven and stove top methods are likely to result in cracklings—crunchy pieces of fat you can drain, salt and eat as a snack. I like the crockpot for several reasons: two gallon-size ziplock bags make a crockpot full (about one quart of rendered fat), I don’t have to add water and I don’t have to keep as close an eye on it.
When the fat is ready, you will have a clear golden liquid and a lot of small round chunks of cooked cracklings (crockpot cracklings are not crisp, but rubbery, so they go to the chickens). Strain the rendered fat through a strainer. If you want to get every last bit of fat, put a piece of muslin in the strainer before you pour in the fat and squeeze it carefully until the fat stops running. I store my rendered fat in glass quart jars. Although it will keep for a few weeks without refrigeration, I usually refrigerate it.
Tallow and lard are great for piecrusts (lard is better for sweet pie fillings and both should be well-chilled so they are relatively solid), frying foods and greasing pans. Cast iron seasoned and regularly greased with tallow is completely non-stick and can even be washed with warm soapy water.