Cured Fatback – Lardo

Originally posted on July 5, 2014.

 

Cured fatback on toast.This post is about cured fatback, most commonly known by its Italian name lardo.

Fatback is the subcutaneous fat that covers the pork loin.  Resist the urge to say “back fat”: it’s called fatback.  Industrially-raised pigs are intentionally grown very lean, so the fatback is typically only an inch thick.  Heritage pigs can have three inches or more of fatback.  These are the animals you need in order to make lardo.

Two autumns ago I got a side of Tamworth pork from Nature’s Green Acres.  The fatback was two and a half inches thick in some places.  It was the first pig that I ever cut that truly deserved to have its fatback cured and enjoyed on its own, instead of, say, simply being ground into sausage mix or rendered into lard.

The procedure for curing fatback is simple.  Cut the fat from the lean meat.  Rub with salt, sugar, herbs, and spices.  Rosemary is common.  I used thyme, juniper, bay, and black pepper.  Store the fat in a cool, dark place for six months or longer.  A cool, dark place could be a centuries-old Carrara marble box in a dank Tuscan cellar, or it could be a drawer in the bottom of your fridge.  In the latter case, put the salted fat in a Ziploc bag and cover tightly with aluminum foil to keep out light.  Light promotes oxidation and develops off-flavours in fat.

Six months later your slab of fat is ready to taste.  My first taste of lardo was in a salumeria in San Daniele.  Raw pork fat sounds so outrageous to my Anglo-Saxon ears that I expected an audacious flavour and grotesque texture.  Truth be told lardo is an extremely subtle preparation.  It is mild, sweet, faintly lactic, and above all creamy.

My homemade lardo is similar to the stuff I ate in Italy, though I think I was a bit heavy-handed with the sugar.  And the exterior was extremely salty: the first few slices were frankly inedible.

I’ll use this word again: subtle.  Lardo is so subtle it promotes contemplation. How could something so crude be so nuanced in flavour and texture?

A civilized preparation, this cured fatback.

A slab of cured fatback, or lardo.

Making Soap with Lard

Homemade soap in a mold.If you had told me five years ago that one day I would make soap I would have scoffed with self-righteous indignation.  Being a very serious chef and a bit of a dink I eschewed the “arts and crafts” that took precious space away from food at the farmers’ market.  I don’t feel that way anymore: I appreciate the pottery and the quilts and the pysanka, and even the beeswax candles.

For the past few years I have been rendering lard from sides of pork.  Now, I think I eat more lard than most: I use it in pie dough, I make spreads like Grammelschmalz and Schmalzfleisch, and use it as an everyday cooking fat.  Even so, I can’t eat it as fast as the anatomy of my pigs demands that I produce it. When I cut this year’s pig there was still about ten pounds in my freezer.  I decided to use it up by making an inedible pork product: soap.

Traditional soap is a mixture of fat, water, and lye.  Lye is sodium hydroxide, a very strong base, once commonly used in homes as a cleaner, valued for its ability to break grease into water-soluble debris that can be rinsed away.  It is also used in the traditional production of bagels and pretzels, which are briefly boiled in a lye solution before being baked in an oven.  (Milder baking soda often subs in these days.)  I have no idea where to purchase lye; there just happened to be some in the kitchen at Elm Catering, remnants of a pretzel-bite experiment.

Anyways, when water, lye, and fat are mixed properly a process called saponification begins.  I tried to read the Wikipedia article on saponification, but understand almost none of it.  All we need to know is that saponification converts these three seemingly incompatible ingredients into bars of hard soap.  For specific recipes and procedural details I used this website, recommended by Michael Ruhlman.

The process in a nutshell:

Dissolve the lye powder in cold water.  A chemical reaction occurs and the water actually becomes quite hot.  My cold tap water was at almost 80°C by the time all the lye was dissolved.  Best not lean over the bowl as you dissolve the lye: sniffing the fumes is a bit like inhaling bleach. The lye solution must cool to below 37°C before it can be mixed with the lard.

Melt the lard.  While the lye solution cools you can slowly heat the lard.  Optimal temperature is 85°C-115°C.

Mixing.  Pour the lard into the lye solution while stirring.  The mixture must then be stirred vigorously until it thickens, like a custard.  This is called “trace” stage.  I used a stick blender and had a pudding consistency in about three minutes.

Pour into molds.  I used a steel baking tray lined with plastic wrap.

Shape.  After 1-3 days you can cut the soap, still in its mold, into bars.  After 3-7 days you can remove these bars from the mold.

Cure.  At this point the soap is still too basic to be used on your hands.  It must cure for another two weeks or so, during which time the saponification process continues, the pH drops significantly, and the soap hardens and becomes more opaque.

So, what’s the soap like?  It’s fine.  It’s soap.  The first thing most people ask is if it smells like pork because it’s made from lard.  The answer is no: if you render the lard properly it should be very neutral.

The soap lathers, through maybe not as much as a bar of Irish Spring.

For me the real value of making soap is that it uses up the last bits of fat from the animal that I have been unable to consume at the table.  The process is dead simple, and quick.  I don’t know if I’ll be making soap every year, but it’s a useful trick to have when the freezer runneth over with lard.

A stack of homemade bars of soap

Rendering Lard and Making Grammeln

Slabs of lard rendered from raw pork fatI’ve rendered animal fat many times, but I recently learned that I was doing it wrong.  Or rather, not in the most effective manner.

Rendering is the process of turning raw, fatty tissue from animals into pure fat.  We render pieces of raw pork fat to get lard, and raw beef fat to get tallow.  I used to quickly cut up, say, pork leaf lard, or beef suet, or duck breasts, then throw them in a pot over low heat and leave them for several hours.  This works, but I was always surprised by the low yield.

My exploration of an improved rendering method began last summer, in Austria, while eating at a Heuriger.  I was served light rye bread with a spread called Grammelschmaltz. It was lard, studded with tiny, crunchy, porky bits called Grammeln (singular Grammel, or Grieben in the Bavarian dialect).  They were delicious, but I had absolutely no idea what I was eating, so I asked several people around me how it was made.  From one lady I got the following explanation, roughly: “You chop the pork fat, then cook it, then press it, then cook what’s left until it’s brown and crispy.”  At first I thought this was just an explanation of how to make Grammeln, but now I realize it’s a description of a high-yield rendering process, and the Grammeln are merely by-products.

The fatty tissue we take from a pig, whether fatback (subcutaneous fat) or leaf lard (visceral fat) or fatty sections of the shoulder (inter- and intramuscular fat), are not pure fat.  The pure fat is stored in cells lined with connective tissue.  If we heat the tissue in large pieces, some of those cells may rupture and leach fat, but most will stay intact.  To increase the yield of pure fat from the rendering process it makes sense to damage as many fat cells and possible before heating.

Grinding raw fat tissue before renderingArmed with this knowledge I stockpiled a few pieces of leaf lard in my freezer, intending to break them into tiny pieces with a box grater.  This proved much, much harder than I expected, so I decided to cube the fat and run it through a grinder.

The ground fat can then be put in a large pot.  I add a bit of water to help distribute heat in the early stages.  Then I leave the pot on medium low heat for a few hours to melt the fat, which runs out of the cells and into the bottom of the pan.  The water evaporates.

Even once the fat has melted, there are several, solid bits left in the pot.  These are shards of the connective tissue that once held the pure fat in a network.  We can bump up our yield by pressing these solids to exude a bit more fat.  I’m sure there are proper presses to do this, but I just put the solids in a china cap and press them with the back of a ladle.

The easiest way to store the rendered fat is to pour it into a tray and let it solidify in the fridge, then cut it into slabs, wrap in butcher paper, and store in the freezer.

Grammel: a by-product of rendering pork fat into lard.  The remaining solids can now be crisped up to make Grammeln.  I cook them over medium-high heat until they are golden amber, maybe ten minutes.

Crisping Grammeln

Crispy Grammeln

As many Austrians have told me, Grammeln make for very, very rustic eating: food for cold days or the end of a long hike.  They tell me that it isn’t a very popular ingredient nowadays, but I have to say that when I was in Semmering I came across it frequently, mainly in the form of GrammelschmaltzGrammeln mixed with a bit of lard, salted and spread on rye bread.  This was my favourite incarnation, though I think the spread benefits from a bit of added mustard, for acidity and flavour.  I also had Grammeln bound by a bit of lard, rolled into balls and stuffed into dumplings called Grammelknoedl.  I even had it in chocolate bars – a salty, crunchy hit, kind of like how trendy chocolatiers might use sea salt.

Grammelschmaltz on rye

Scrunchions

Scrunchions and sea salt

These are scrunchions.  They’re a bit like pork rinds.

“Pork rind” simply means pork skin.  It can refer to the fresh, raw skin cut from a side of pork, but more commonly it means pig skin that has been rendered and fried crisp.  It is actually the same as crackling, though commercially-produced pork rinds are much more delicate than the crackling that develops on oven-roasted pork.

Scrunchions are made by a similar process, but they consist of pork fat, not skin.  I know it sounds funny that deep-frying fat results in a crispy treat, but raw animal fat also contains a good deal of connective tissue that holds the fat cells in place.  When you fry strips of raw, intact pork fat, the connective tissue browns and eventually becomes crispy.

Scrunchions are one of the great achievements of Newfie cuisine, along with chow-chow, screech, and saltfish.  They also make scrunchions in Quebec, but they’re called oreilles de crisse, literally “Christ’s ears.”  Quebecois profanity is hilarious…

The scrunchions pictured above were actually baked on a wire rack, not deep-fried.  Once crisp they were removed to a paper towel and sprinkled with sea salt and chopped thyme.

How to Make a Paper Cone for Scrunchions

This is also how pastry cooks make impromptu piping bags from parchment paper.

Cut a 8″ x 8″ square of parchment paper.  Cut the square into two right angled triangles.  Orient one of the triangles so that the hypotenuse is towards you, like so:

Roll the bottom left corner so that its tip meets the tip on the top centre:

Now roll the bottom right corner around the cone, so that its tip meets the other two.

You should be able to pinch all three corners:

Fold the three corners down.  Fold them once more to secure the cone.

The cone should now hold its own shape, without the use of tape.

Fat is Flavour (A short tirade)

Fat is perhaps the main source of flavor [sic] in meat.

-Professional Cooking for Canadian Chefs, Sixth Edition

 

Nothing in particular inspired this post, but it could have very easily been a piece of low-fat cheese, or the pastry icing at a health bakery, or maybe just a dry pork chop. I want to write a bit about the judicious use of fat to make eating more pleasurable.

Fat content in specific cuts of meat. The most common cut of pork in the supermarket is the boneless loin centre chop. This steak is the leanest part of a very lean muscle. It also happens to be the toughest, driest, and least flavourful cut of pork. This is not a coincidence. The fat marbled throughout a piece of meat gives flavour, moist mouthfeel, and tenderness, as the fat separates bundles of protein. The sirloin steak, from a section of the loin closer to the hind legs of the pig, while not as uniform or lean as the centre steak, is more flavourful, juicy, and tender, largely because it has more fat marbled throughout its mass.

The same comparison can be made between beef sirloin steaks and porterhouse or t-bone steaks, or white and dark meat on poultry.

The removal of fat from supermarket cuts of meat is health-driven, but it is part of a larger trend that distances us from the origin of our food, as well as several of the chief pleasures in consuming it. Think of the boneless, skinless chicken breast. Bones are flavourful, and crispy skin gives textural contrast to succulent meat. If the rarity of fatty cuts is health-driven, what’s the excuse for removing bones and skin? It’s like a weird control-tactic from Brave New World: take away all reminders of mortality so we are more content and docile.

I digress.


Jars of rendered fat: duck, beef, and porkCooking with rendered fat.
When searing meat in a pan we most often turn to neutral oils with high smoke points, like canola and grapeseed. If we really want to make our dish flavourful, why not sear our meat in its corresponding fat? Start a beef stew by searing chuck in tallow. Sear and baste a pork chop in lard.

Rendered animal fats can elevate non-meat dishes, too. Potatoes benefit immeasurably from the added depth of flavour. Duck fat is a common choice in France. Interestingly, McDonald’s used to cook their fries in pure beef fat, before “the public’s concern about cholesterol forced them to change to pure (though dangerously partially hydrogenated) vegetable oil.”1

Try pie dough with lard instead of butter, especially if you’re making tourtiere.

If you’re wondering how to obtain rendered fat, here are some ideas:

  • The simplest way is to ask your butcher for scraps, then render them yourself. It sounds like an ordeal, but it’s easy. In fact, I have a post about rendering pork fat into lard, and one about rendering duck and goose fat.
  • You can also save scraps yourself. Buy larger cuts of meat that you have to trim yourself, then save the fatty scraps in the freezer until you have enough to render. Having raw (that is, un-rendered) fat in your kitchen also opens up the world of sausages, pâtés, and traditional mincemeat pies.
  • Start making stocks at home. Buy whole poultry instead of just breasts and save the carcasses in the freezer until you have enough to fill a large stock pot. The gently simmering stock renders the fat out of the meat trim. That fat rises to the top. When you cool your stock, the fat will solidify and is easily removed in one solid mass. The amount of fat you are left with depends on how thoroughly the carcasses have been picked over and (obviously) the amount of stock you are making.

Cooking with craft foods that release fat. The most common example is bacon. Countless classical French recipes begin by cooking bacon, then searing other meats and sweating vegetables in the rendered bacon fat. Most notable are braised dishes like boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, to which the bacon is later reintroduced. My great aunt used to save bacon fat to fry bread for breakfast.

Eggs fried in chorizo and its delicious, spicy, rendered fatSausage works well too, but free-form sausage is better than cased sausage. The key to preparing quality cased sausages, like bratwurst, is to keep the casing in tact so that no fat is lost. This is done firstly by not scoring or puncturing the skin, and secondly by cooking on medium-low heat to prevent rupture.

Free-form sausage, on the other hand, is usually cooked and then added to a more complicated dish. The best example is Mexican-style chorizo, which is a spicy, fresh sausage. No casing means that more fat ends up in the pan, and the fat leached by chorizo is almost as valuable as the meat itself. It is bright red, and infused with paprika and chile. Try cooking some free-form chorizo, then remove the meat form the pan, leaving the fat. Fry some eggs in that fat and add the meat back (at left). Chorizo also works wonders on rice dishes. Cook chorizo with some onions. Add raw rice and coat it with the rendered fat. Add chicken stock, bring to a simmer, then cover and place in the oven until the rice is cooked. The pilaf will come out stained with the spice and pork-flavour of the chorizo.

Italian-style sausages, usually flavoured with pepper and fennel, work well in this way, too. They are sold in casings, but you can squeeze the meat out and use it free-form.

Cheese is another example that was recently brought to my attention. Cheese is not usually a base flavour like bacon, but when a meal is starting with seared cheese, maybe a saganaki meze, don’t waste that cheese fat. You could cook your keftedhes in the same pan, or at least fry some bread in it.

That about does it for my rant. I’ll return to a (slightly) less self-righteous tone next post.

Reference
1. Steingarten, Jeffrey. Fries, from The Man Who Ate Everything. ©1997 Vintage Books, New York. Page 415.