I’m gonna file this one under Old Hippie Cookin’. Lately I’ve been thinking about fat. Fat is an important part of our diet. It gives us energy, taste, and vital nutrients. Without it babies don’t develop healthy brains, and our brains don’t stay healthy. But as Mother used to say, “All things in moderation.” (I always add Lazarus Long’s comment, “Including moderation.”) Getting too much fat is bad for us, too.

One of the hot must-read books now is “Grain Brain” — in which the author, according to the reviews I’ve read, says that emphasis on processed diets and grains keeps people from eating enough of the beneficial fats. Beneficial fats include both animal and vegetable fats. In our house, we’ve always had the vegetable fats covered. We were vegan for some years, vegetarian for longer, and now are cautiously omnivorous. What that really means is that we’re doing a fair bit of reading about food, and opening up some doors that got painted shut over the years.

More and more the research points to the benefits of a diverse, omnivorous, and moderate diet. That makes sense, of course, because that’s how humans evolved: as generalists, not as specialists. We can live on roots and berries while we’re waiting for an animal to wander by so we can whack it over the head. We can live on fish while we wait for the berries to get ripe. We can live on bread if that’s all we have right now, and we can eat a wide variety of foods if they’re available. It’s best to make our diet as “wide” as possible, say the researchers, in order to get the benefits of all the nutrients.

All of that is essentially introduction to the topic of rendering fat — that is, the process of taking raw animal fat and heating it to create two products: lard from hog fat and tallow from beef fat. More people are familiar with lard than tallow. Lard is supposed to be the Ultimate Evil Fat in the diet. Fat people get called “Lard-Ass” and other similar names. Even just thinking about lard can make some people feel like their arteries are clogging up.

Tallow, on the other hand, is probably more used in commercial food production than lard. Tallow is the reason McDonald’s fries taste the way they do. Now imagine really GOOD organic potatoes, fried in pure tallow from grass-fed beef. The difference is night and day.

Back to the research for just a moment. If you look into how commercial lard is made, it’s like a lot of other Big Agri food products: Bad News. It’s partially hydrogenated, bleached, and because it comes from factory-farmed hogs it…there’s no way to be gentle about this…tastes like shit. (Or like I would imagine shit tastes, since I’m not THAT omnivorous.) So it really is, finally, as bad for you as we began to think it was back in the ’70s when people started hearing that animal fat was bad and vegetable fat was good. As someone recently pointed out, if vegetable fat was so much better for us than animal fat, how come we have an obesity problem now, after 40 years of vegetable fats? OK, you caught me hiding an ace up my sleeve that time — the real keys are moderation and a diverse diet of non-factory-farmed foods.

So how do we do it? Simple. Go to a good reputable butcher and buy five or six pounds of hog fat. Chop’n’Block up on Hillside next to Canadian Tire carries pastured pork, free-range chickens and turkeys, and grass-fed beef products. A bag of pork fat will cost you about twelve bucks. Old books will tell you to get “leaf fat” or “kidney fat” for both lard and tallow. If you can get them, great, but you’ll have a good product regardless. (Leaf fat from beef is also called “suet.”) If you are asked, “Rind on or off?” choose “Rind Off.” Otherwise you’ll have to deal with the rind (skin) which doesn’t really get you much.

NOTE: the actual process for lard and tallow is the same process, just a different animal.

Take the fat home, and let it thaw in the refrigerator if it is frozen. Now either chop it up into little pieces or run it through a meat grinder. We grind ours, through a fine plate. Put all the chopped or ground fat into a large pot and put it on the stove. Turn the heat on LOW. Now keep an eye on it. The fat will begin to melt slowly. You’ll probably have to give it a stir with a spoon to be sure it’s not sticking anywhere. Keep the heat low, and gradually (over a couple of hours) the fat will melt and you will have a large pot of melted fat with bits of tissue floating in it. This may sound gross but is not. Keep checking to be sure it’s not sticking.

The fat will bubble. You’re doing two things: melting the fat out of the tissue that held it, and driving off the moisture from the fat. Old books will call this “trying” the fat. As time passes you will notice that the tissue pieces float to the top. As more time goes by they will sink again and start to brown. You can turn the heat up just a little.

When the bits turn from white to tannish, I will usually stick a deep-fry thermometer in the fat and see where we are. Once the temperature goes up above 100C/212F, you’ve cooked out most of the water and it’s ready for straining and cooling. You will need some 500 ml wide-mouth mason jars and lids. You can get “edible grease filters” (I get them from Grocery People in Kamloops) or you can just use a double layer of coffee filters. Put your filter in a strainer, put the strainer over a canning funnel in the jar, and ladle your hot fat into the jar. Once the jar is full, switch to the next jar, and so on. When all the jars are full of hot fat, put the lids on and let the jars sit out to cool a little — until they’re just warm. Then, for really fine-grained quality lard, put the jars in the freezer so they won’t fall over and let them set up and freeze overnight.

If you do a fair bit of lard, leave the jars in the freezer and just pull one out when you  need some lard, and keep it in the refrigerator until you use it up; then get out another jar of frozen lard. It will keep months in the refrigerator, years in the freezer. All those little crunchy bits in the filter are “cracklings” and DON’T THROW  THEM AWAY! Get a saucer, put a couple of soup-spoonfuls of the cracklings in it, and sprinkle with some salt. Grind on a little pepper. Now eat the cracklings. If you were a kid who grew up on a farm 60 years ago, I wouldn’t have to tell you that. You’d have to punch your little sister a couple of times just to get your share. We save them and use them instead of those awful “bacon bits” on baked potatoes. You can put them out for the birds, who need energy to survive the winter — but save some for yourself, otherwise you’ll be out in the yard fighting the magpies.

Tallow, as I said, is just like lard. It melts a little differently but the process is the same. I’m not as crazy about tallow crackling, so as far as I’m concerned the magpies can have them. The only real difference is that tallow will set up just fine in the refrigerator, and it sets up harder than lard.

In the old days they made lots of candles out of tallow. Unless it’s the heat of summer, they’ll work just fine. Lard is too soft for candles, but from the 1700s through the late 1800s millions of lamps were made to burn it. Lard gives a nice white light, and if burnt properly does not smoke or stink. Up until the introduction of electricity, lighthouses used “lard oil” for light. Lard oil is made by pressing lard to get the liquid oil out of the solid fat. Industry still uses lard oil — it is an excellent “tooling fluid” for lubricating machinery that cuts aluminum. It’s still used because it is cheap, non-polluting and it works.

If you’re interested in lard lamps, there’s plenty of information online. Between lard lamps and tallow candles, a lot of people had light at night when they needed it!

Finally, what can you do with lard and tallow? You can use it for frying, that’s for sure. You will find that if you use either one for frying or sauteeing, that suddenly you won’t have to use as much as you may if you use vegetable oils. That right there is a health benefit. You’ll find the taste of foods fried or sauteed or stir-fried in them will be different, and you’ll be satisfied after eating less of them. How counter-intuitive that seems to “what everybody knows!” — you will be using less fat to cook, and you’ll be eating less food but feeling just as satisfied. As I wrote above, potatoes fried in tallow will make you say, “These taste like potatoes SHOULD taste.” Lard can also be used to grease baking pans, you can substitute it for butter if you wish (Look for Grandma’s Sugar Cookies elsewhere on this blog) and you can use lard as the fat in pie crusts.

The real neat thing is that you can try it out with a couple of pounds of fat, and make some high-quality cooking fat in an afternoon. It’s better than what you can buy, it’s better for you, and you have a new set of skills in which you can take pride.