Seattle is a pork-happy town. I observed the local fondness for pork not long after moving to the city three years ago. In addition to sandwiches and burgers featuring bacon, which is to be expected, pork plays a prominent role in breakfast. "Of course," some of you say, "ham and eggs for breakfast."
Seattleites don't stop at the traditional breakfast offerings, such as bacon and eggs, sausage and eggs, or pancakes and eggs. No, they take their worship of that "magical animal" a few steps further. In Seattle, you find pancakes and waffles with bacon mixed into the batter. I expect that other cities have similar or even stranger practices. In Scotland and Rain City, you may consume a Scotch egg, which is a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage, coated in bread crumbs and deep-fried.
The seeming omnipresence of bacon was unmatched in Portland and San Francisco, where I've also lived. Lard also is popular, for reasons that remain elusive to me. I started thinking about lard while reading Real Food, but I was quite shocked by the interest at the first Crown S CSA meeting. Lard was one of the hot topics around the picnic area, with people wondering where to obtain lard from organic, sustainably raised pigs.
Who could answer questions about buying and making lard? Eyes turned to the Ethicureans.
So, last week, I made lard.
My first encounter with lard was almost two decades ago in a Soviet deli. A college student of languages and literature, I lived in Russia to study the language and to travel outside of the U.S. for the first time. While I waited in line — a common practice in the Soviet Union — to buy a hunk of sausage, my eyes fell on a strange white brick in a display case. The brick looked like a sickly, pale cousin of Crisco. After a few minutes, it dawned on me — lard.
The texture and appearance of lard was one of the lesser surprises in the Soviet Union. I had been raised on butter and margarine, and was used to their color and texture. Lard looked more like refined gristle, or the remnants in a skillet from cooking bacon. Lard is very similar to the fat left behind by bacon and pork sausage links, though these cuts come from different parts of the pig than the best grade of lard, leaf lard.
A few calls to local retailers revealed that the likely suspects, specialty foods store Whole Foods and natural co-op PCC, do not carry lard. Whole Foods said that they had not found a supplier that met their standards, while PCC simply said that they do not carry lard. Uwajimaya, one of the best places to find Asian foods in Seattle, carries lard, as does a shop in Pike Place Market, but neither store provides information about their lard's origins.
Commercial lard commonly contains the additive BHT, a preservative that is a suspected carcinogen, and is partially hydrogenated.
Lard is made by rendering pig fat, a process in which the fat is melted and non-fat pieces are removed. Leaf lard is not lard, but is rendered into lard, a distinction that some may find confusing. Leaf lard is the fat surrounding the pig's kidneys and reportedly results in less "piggy" flavored lard.
The Dairy Queen had tipped me off to buying lard from Samish Bay Cheese, which has a booth at the Ballard Farmers Market. I'd also heard that Skagit River Ranch sells lard. Unfortunately, much of Seattle heard the same thing when Pacific Northwest Magazine wrote about lard and listed my two sources.
When I reached the Samish Bay booth, the woman kindly informed me that they had no more leaf lard. Pacific Northwest Magazine's article had caused a run on lard. She did have back fat, another part of the pig used to make lard, but her hands outlined a block larger than a shoe box. I decided against back fat, but the woman told me to try calling Samish Bay Cheese to see if they have any leaf lard in storage. Autumn is the end of the slaughtering cycle, and Samish Bay will not replenish their lard stores until next spring. If they do have leaf lard, you can ask them to bring it to their booth at one of the farmers' markets where they do business. Their phone number is (360) 766-6707.
Skagit River Ranch doesn't list leaf lard or back fat on their product board. I ambled into the back of the tent and asked quietly, "Do you have any back fat?"
"Oh, yes," said Betty, pulling opening an unmarked cooler next to the scale. Not only did they have pork fat, but it was the higher quality leaf lard. Score! I bought two bags, which Betty said would make a cup each. I later discovered that hers was a conservative estimate.
The leaf lard still was frozen when we got home. I placed the packages in the refrigerator to render the following day during my lunch hour. The chunks of fat felt firmer than I expected and were tough to cut, partly because of a thin membrane of connective tissue that covered one side.
The Pacific Northwest Magazine lard article, which I should mention is published by The Seattle Times, recommends processing the fat into paste and rendering the fat for several hours over low heat. I had a little over an hour, and I didn't have any desire to clean pureed fat from the food processor. I turned to an older article from the San Francisco Chronicle, which informed me that high-temperature rendering gives lard a caramelized flavor, a perfect complement to certain pie crusts.
I cut the lard into small chunks and placed the approximately three pounds of lard chunks in a 12" cast iron skillet and added a cup of water. The fat was supposed to melt in an hour at 375 degrees, leaving behind browned pieces of pig. One of our readers recommended saving the leftover browned pieces for use with beans and in stews.
Things didn't turn out entirely as expected. After two hours, I still had some pieces that looked like soggy calamari. I also had a bubbling pool of golden liquid. I expect that this was one of the times when following the recipe, and using only one pound of fat, would have been productive. The volume of liquid was more than the two cups estimated by Betty.
After allowing the liquid to cool, I poured it into a mason jar and stuck the jar in the refrigerator. A few hours later, we had a jar filled with the familiar white fat — about four cups worth. The kitchen smelled of bacon for several days.
Lard will keep for six months if refrigerated and up to a year if frozen. Eventually, lard will oxidize and turn rancid.
The measure of lard, for me, was the quality of pie crust. The last pie that I made this year had a butter crust made with European sweet butter, which is higher in fat than regular butter. That crust tasted good, but it wasn't as flaky as I had hoped. I opted to make a peach pie while peaches still are in season.
Mother Butter gave me a crust recipe calling for two cups of lard, but I opted to use the following Joy of Cooking recipe to make the crust less heavy:
2 1/2 C flour
1/2 tsp of sugar
1/2 tsp of salt
1 C lard
1 stick of butter
2/3 C ice water
Mix the dry ingredients thoroughly. Use a pastry knife to cut the lard and butter into the flour until the fat has been reduced to small pebbles. Add the ice water and mix gently until clumps form. Divide the dough into halves, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate.
The dough had a slightly piggy smell that I found off-putting. The smell disappeared when the dough was refrigerated.
For the filling, I peeled, pitted and sliced 5 large peaches. The slices were mixed with 1/2 C of sugar, the juice from a whole lemon — about 3 tablespoons — and 2 tablespoons of corn starch. I let the peach mixture soak while I rolled out the dough and cut the second half into slices for a lattice.
The pie cooked in 40 minutes, a little more than half the time mentioned in the recipe. I used a ceramic pie dish, instead of the glass dish used on my last two pies, and attribute the shorter cooking time to the ceramic dish.
As expected, the pie crust was flakier than my butter crust, but it also was greasy and heavy. The dough had turned a deep brown during cooking, and the crust gave a nutty, rich flavor that went well with the sweet peaches. Still, I prefer my desserts to be sweeter and less heavy, and to get my fat from rich entrees and sauces. The next time I make pie, I'll avoid the piggy smell and use an all-butter crust. I'm saving the lard to make frijoles, black bean roles, and huevos motulenos.