Made my own lard

People have almost certainly been cooking with lard since the domestication of pigs close to 10,000 years ago. Along with butter and olive oil, lard must be one of the oldest “processed foods” around.

When I was writing my post on whether or not saturated fats would kill us all, I discovered that “grocery store” lard is often bleached (bad) and often partially hydrogenated (terrible). So it occurred to me that I probably ought to try to get some less-processed lard.

I asked at a local butcher, but they said they didn’t sell lard. Then I asked at the University of Illinois Meat Lab, which said that they didn’t make lard, but that they could set aside some pig fat for me, if I wanted.

Due to the room being a bit noisy, I hadn’t quite heard what they said, and had thought that I would be getting lard. But no: I got a couple of pounds of vacuum-packed frozen pig fat.

But that was okay. I read a couple of web pages on how to make lard, and went ahead and rendered it myself.

They had given me nice clean fat—just a modest amount of blood and connective tissue remained attached. I let it mostly thaw, cut it up into quarter-inch cubes, put it in a heavy pot with just a little water, got it just hot enough to simmer, and let it just barely simmer for a couple of hours so that the fat melted away from the connective tissue. Then I ladled it all through some cheese cloth and a colander (which kept the “cracklings,” i.e. lightly fried connective tissue, and let the melted lard drain through). I poured the melted lard into a mason jar, let it cool, and popped it into the fridge.

Now I have a couple of cups of snowy white lard that I can be sure has neither been bleached nor hydrogenated. (See photo at top. For color reference: Yes, the mason jar is purple. Long story.)

I don’t use much lard—mostly I just use it to touch up the seasoning on my cast-iron cookware, very occasionally to cook something where I don’t want a butter or olive flavor—so I expect this will last me a year or more. It was easy enough to do that I don’t think I’ll hesitate to render my own lard again when I run out.

As long as I was rendering fat I went ahead and re-rendered some beef tallow that I’d skimmed off the top of the sauce for a pot roast that I made a couple of weeks ago. I just melted it, cooked it long enough to boil off the watery bits, and then poured it through a strainer to get the bits of rosemary leaves and mushrooms that had clung to it when I skimmed it.

It’s kind of odd tallow, because it still has plenty of rosemary and mushroom flavor, and is red because of the tomato paste in the pot roast sauce, but it makes a fine fat for sauteing veggies, cooking omelettes, etc.

Saturated fats may or may not kill us all

I am daunted by stuff like this recent article in Paleo Magazine: Does Coconut Oil Really Cause Heart Attacks? which makes the case that polyunsaturated vegetable oil is dangerous stuff to eat, and that the statistical associations that seemed to suggest that it was safer than saturated fat were an artifact of other dietary changes going on at the same time that the public was being pushed to switch to vegetable oils:

Though saturated-fat-intake data used in these trials are absent from most of the publications, historical data do show that the average person’s diet was higher in margarine and shortening than it was in butter, lard, and tallow. One must consider that most, or possibly all, of the 1970s-era studies showing a supposed benefit of adding PUFAs are actually evidencing the benefit of cutting out trans fat.

It is annoying that the research studies done to date do not seem to have been constructed to resolve this question, leaving us stuck trying to figure out statistical correlations and hypothesize about cause and effect based on how different fatty acids are metabolized in the body.

Lacking the skills with either statistics on the one hand and biochemistry on the other, I can’t figure this out for myself. And yet, it is literally a matter of life or death.

However, there is another way to get at the question, the strategy suggested by Michael Pollan in In Defense of Food. There are many traditional diets that have been eaten all over the world by millions of people for thousands of years, and the people who have eaten them have thrived.

There are also diets that were eaten by people who did not thrive—the standard American diet for one, but also many others. (In particular, it seems that many early agricultural societies go through a period when agriculture starts producing enough calories through a single staple crop to push the population high enough that it’s not possible to get the full range of necessary nutrients from other available foods. In the archeological record you see people shrinking and signs of various degenerative diseases not present in other populations.)

By looking at the vast range of diets that lead to thriving, I am convinced that it’s not that hard to eat a healthy diet, and that simply going for whole foods gets one most of the way there.

I am convinced enough that, despite being a picky eater from way back, I have been expanding the range of things I eat more and more, trying to add whole foods and delete processed foods. I give a nod to paleo eating—speculating about what cavemen ate and how they prepared it is at least fun and may even offer some useful guidance on how to eat, especially for people who have dietary issues that they’ve been unable to resolve with simpler strategies—but I have not given up dairy or grains or legumes.

Trying to eat whole foods has significantly increased the amount of saturated fat in my diet. I just about don’t use polyunsaturated vegetable oil in my own cooking—it is, after all, a quintessentially processed food—and I eat very little food cooked by other people (except Jackie).

I suppose the fats I do eat and cook with—olive oil, butter, and lard—are all “processed,” but those processes (pressing, churning, rendering) are processes that people have been using for a very long time indeed. The number of people who have eaten those fats and thrived over the past 5000 years (that we know of, and probably a multiple of that in fact) is large enough to give me some confidence that these foods are safe to eat.

So far that’s the best I’ve been able to come up with.