Pork Fat, Oils, and Shortenings

My preferred shortening is clean home-rendered lard. For frying it produces the most delicious and authentic flavor, and for baking it produces the flakiest pastry and the most delicately layered biscuits. Rendering lard is incredibly simple. Have your butcher save clean fresh pig fat for you; some butchers do not charge for fat. The butcher also may be willing to run it through the meat grinder for you to save you a step. Put a mere film of water in the bottom of a heavy pan—preferably cast iron—large enough to hold the fat you want to render. (I have a cast-iron roasting pan that is 20 inches long and 4 inches deep; I can render 15 pounds of lard at a time. If you do not own any cast-iron pans, and plan to buy some to outfit your Lowcountry kitchen, this is a perfect way to begin seasoning them.)

Grind the fat and add it to the pan. Put the pan over very low heat or in an oven preheated to 225°. Melt the fat slowly. When the solid matter, or cracklings, turns brown and sinks to the bottom of the pan, strain the lard through cheesecloth or a fine-mesh stainless-steel strainer into sterilized jars. You may fill them to the rims since the lard will contract upon hardening. Cover the jars with cheesecloth to keep out dust and insects, but do not cap them for 2 days. The lard will last for several months in a cool, dark, dry place and even longer in the refrigerator. Weigh lard and butter or measure it by displacement. One-half cup of lard weighs 3 ounces; one-quarter cup or 4 tablespoons is equal to one-and-a-half ounces.

Commercially available lard is often stale; it usually contains questionable additives such as BHA and BHT. John F. Martin & Sons are custom butchers in Stevens, Pennsylvania, who sell pure lard, with no additives. Call (717) 336-2804 for shipping information.

If you don’t want to use lard, I suggest that you use rendered goose or duck fat in your pastries and peanut oil for your frying. Both peanut oil and olive oil are called for frequently in the Lowcountry kitchen. Extra-virgin olive oil is specified in a few salads; vegetable oils are occasionally called for. If you are a vegetarian who wants to cook some Lowcountry classics such as okra and tomatoes, sauté in olive oil instead of bacon grease and use the vegetable stock.

Other pig fat that is used in our cooking is salted “fatback,” which is also more correctly called “sidemeat” (hog back is never smoked or salted) and “streak o’ lean,” from the side belly (called “bacon” when smoked). “Butt’s meat” is salted meat from the jowl of the hog. Smoked jowl is called “smoked butt’s” or “hog jowl” and is used with greens on New Year’s Day. Hocks, when smoked, become “ham hocks.” What we call bacon is what everyone else calls bacon, cured similarly to country hams, which are discussed in the meat chapter. Bacon grease (drippings) is always strained; it gives the distinctive crust to our corn bread baked in hot cast-iron skillets.
When you’re cooking with these salted and/or smoked meats, note that the foods cooked with them, such as greens and beans, seldom need any salt or pepper; only hot pepper vinegar and vinegar relishes are added when the food is eaten.