Thursday, July 26, 2012

Rendering Suet aka Makin' Lard

Suffice to say that I have a greater understanding of the scent of a medieval household after my first experience rendering suet.

I've been reading The Great Mortality by John Kelly, a riveting account of the black plague and how it wound its way through Europe in the 14th century.  Needless to say a key ingredient in its spread was the incredible filth of households in this period.  People bathed rarely and garbage (think dead animals, toilet offerings, rotten food) was strewn about the streets.  They also used lard or tallow in making candles.  According to Kelly, lard wasn't a preferred source of fuel because of the smell.

So let me get this straight.  People who were surrounded by rotting flesh and human excrement complained about the smell of burning lard.  How could this be?

Let me tell you.  It is a penetrating and murky smell.  Those familiar with the smell of their house after a deep fry session will have some idea, but rendering lard is worse.  It lacks the richness of cooking meat and the purity of cooking with vegetable oil.  It just smells heavy, and not in a good way.

I would like to think that I have a fairly strong stomach.  I mean I did saw open a sheep's head after all.  Despite the strength of my stomach, I will probably never render suet again.  But what inspired me to bother in the first place?  It was the pie competition.

According to the Joy of Cooking lard makes a "very tender crust (that) is best reserved for covered fruit pies" (p. 862).  Did I want a "very tender crust" and was I making a fruit pie?  Yes on both accounts.  I was sure that using lard would give me an upper hand on my competition.  With this in mind, I trotted to my butchers. 

Lo and behold they had bags of frozen suet, ground up and ready to go.  Luckily one of the butchers told me that I would need to render it before I used it for my pie.  Armed with this information and clutching my little bag of ground fat, I trot home, sure that I was about to have a pastry breakthrough.

Before getting started I decide to do a little research.  There is a wet method and a dry method of rendering fat.  The dry method is used during normal cooking - think of frying bacon and then using the wonderful extra fat to fry your eggs.  The wet method involves throwing, in my case, a big chunk of suet into a pot with water and letting it cook on low for hours.  As it cooks the fat melts out and can be poured off through a strainer. 

I didn't use a lot of water so the water had evaporated before I poured the fat off.  If you are using a lot of water then the fat can be skimmed off the top.  As this fat and water-filled mixture steams and bubbles away for hours your house will be filled with its distinctive odour.  I highly recommend closing all doors to bedrooms to prevent the smell from making friends with your clothing.

The rendered lard is quite beautiful, lily white and pure.  Its hard to believe that it came from a murky, flesh-colored pot of melting suet.  Once the process was complete (well to be honest, once I had rendered enough lard) I took my hot pot of suet off the stovetop and thanked the spirits that the process was over.

To ready myself for the pastry-making process (this was for my second test pie - the disastrous one) I froze the lard.  I grated the frozen lard into my flour, using butter for half the fat, finished my pastry, filled the pie and waited for ecstasy.  The pie was a disaster because I was experimenting (a combination of different recipes and my imagination) and miscalculated the cooking time.  Once my pie had "cooled" I realized that it wasn't hardening and in fact I had made strawberry soup pie.  Luckily I was still able to taste the lard-filled pastry on top.

The Verdict

It tastes like beef.  The texture was nice but the beefiness came through so strongly that it overpowered the delicate fruitiness of the filling.  Mmm strawberry-beef fat pie...  No, not so tasty.  It might work for a beef pie but even then I question the flavour the lard gave the pastry.  Some would call it the essence of being not tasty.  I have since read up more on lard and possibly, possibly will try pork fat in the future.  Emphasis on the possibly because I don't really want pork fat perfume wafting its way through my house.

Back to pure butter pastry for me!  I would love to hear if others use lard in their pastry?  Do you render it yourself or do you buy it from the butcher?  Do you use pork or beef?  Share your pastry and lard experiences.


Shonagh explores the guts of food in An Offal Experiment


  1. Great title, great post! The wonderful thing about a cooking blog is getting blog material from your mistakes. My mom used to render chicken fat, and my sister-in-law does it for Passover. I don't recall such a bad smell.

    1. I'm happy to be of service! I think chicken would definitely be a better smell, especially if it was being dry rendered. It might just have been a personal reaction because I have had other people tell me that they don't mind it either.

      Thanks for checking out my blog!

  2. I wonder what pork fat would be like in a pie? I was admiring lard at the butchers and saw regular lard and then I saw leaf lard. Not sure what the diff was, but the leaf lard was more expensive.

    I've rendered both chicken fat and duck fat. Both seemed great ans then you have the added bonus of cracklings. I will keep reading to find out what your fat for crust verdict is.

    BTW, I'm reading Odd Bits. I love beef cheeks. Did I tell you once we did a dish at the last restaurant for Valentine's Day with beef cheeks and pork butt and called it Cheek to Cheek?

  3. You render suet into tallow from beef fat.

    You render lard from pig fat.

    Lard is used for pie crust and other baking, not tallow. Tallow is excellent for all types of frying, particularly potatoes (yum!!) I do use lard for frying as well, but the stronger odor of tallow would be too much for baking.

    Leaf lard is rendered from a particular area of the hog which gives it a much lighter smell and is nearly tasteless. Lard can come from any fat on the pig so it can be mixed with bacon grease even.

    Almost all the old-time pie crust recipes that have shortening as an ingredient were changed from lard. I've had pies with lard crusts -- oh yeah, it makes a huge difference.

    1. Thanks! I've had a few people tell me that! I'm happy to know I can still experiment with lard in pie because I've heard it's quite fantastic texture-wise. A butchery class I took mentioned the lard by the kidneys, which may be this leaf lard you speak of.

      I sense a new experiment coming on!