Anyone who is familiar with the research of Weston A. Price and the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) knows that animal fats were a prominent dietary feature of all healthy traditional cultures and are just as essential today for truly vibrant health. The consumption of animal fats is one of the most important features of WAPF’s dietary guidelines—a cornerstone without which the whole edifice of good nutrition falls apart! Not only are the saturated fats extremely important, but so are the other nutrients in animal fats, such as the fat-soluble vitamins and, yes, cholesterol. The WAPF journals and website provide ample information and research covering the reasons why animal fats are important to every single cell, tissue and organ of the human body.
For optimal nutrition, any fat found along with meat (including organs) should be eaten with the meat and not trimmed or discarded. In addition, most animals have much more fat that we should be saving and using for its nutritional value and for its many uses in cooking and even in skin care. This is where the rendering of animal fats comes in.
WHAT IS RENDERING?
Rendering is the process whereby one separates animal fat from the fat tissue by heating, thereby converting it into a more usable or palatable form.
Animals whose fat is typically rendered are ruminants (grass-eating animals) such as cows (beef), sheep (mutton) and many others, resulting in tallow; pigs (pork), which results in lard; and poultry (chickens, ducks and geese), which produce schmaltz. The fat tissue that remains after rendering all of the fat is called cracklings. Pork rinds, a popular snack, are the cracklings that result from rendering lard.
Tallow can be rendered from suet, which is a large, thick, stiff mass of fat in the interior of the ruminant, attached to the kidney. Its hardness indicates its high degree of saturation. Although some butchers refer to all of a ruminant’s fat as “suet,” this term technically only applies to this interior “kidney fat.” It is also possible to render tallow from other fats, such as the fat tissue just under the skin, generally referred to as “trim fat.” Trim fat is readily identifiable because it comes in relatively thin strips and often has some meat attached to it. This softer fat will result in a softer, less saturated tallow.
Lard is less saturated than tallow and, therefore, softer at room temperature. As with tallow, there are two types of lard: leaf lard and fatback lard. Leaf lard comes from the interior fat around the kidneys and loins, whereas fatback, as the name implies, comes from the fat under the skin on the back of the pig. Leaf lard has a more neutral taste than fatback lard.
RENDERING POULTRY FAT
The easiest and most sensible way to render fat from poultry is simply to roast the bird and catch the drippings. The fat that you are not going to use when eating the bird can then be poured off the top of the drippings. With chicken, chances are that there will not be any fat left over unless you are eating your meat very lean, which is not recommended. With duck, there will likely be some left over and with goose, you will end up with a lot of extra fat. The other way to render poultry fat is to remove the fat (and the skin if so desired) from the uncooked bird and use one of the following rendering methods.
I am about to share with you the best and easiest way for the home cook to render any animal fat, and it is surprisingly little known. I will also describe other common methods so you can decide for yourself which is best. Do not use a lid on the pot with any of these methods.
Regardless of the rendering method, cut up the fat into bite-size pieces, excluding anything that is not fat. For lard, it is best to grind the fat or chop it in a food processor; this will maximize the amount of lard produced since pork fat tissue does not release its fat as readily as others. This is more easily done if the pork fat is partially frozen.
First, there are methods I do not recommend because they are more difficult—and needlessly so. With the wet method, the fat is simmered in boiling water and stirred, causing the rendered fat to separate and rise to the top. This is a useful method for very large commercial rendering batches and is often referred to as “kettle rendering.” (Note that when you remove solid fat from the top of refrigerated broth for use elsewhere, you are also rendering fat using the wet method.) The purpose of the water is to prevent scorching because boiling water does not get hot enough to scorch the fat. However, the fat must then be separated from the water and cracklings and allowed to solidify.
This is no easy task for the home cook, as it requires either continuing to render until all of the water has evaporated off—which is time-consuming and risks scorching—or skimming the fat off the top of the water, which is a painstaking job and impossible to do completely without also skimming out some water. The cracklings must then be filtered out of the fat. Most of the water that remains in the skimmed fat goes to the bottom again as it cools; then, the hardened fat must be removed from the water, melted again and poured into an airtight container. Even with this last step, some water will usually remain in the fat when the home cook uses this method, and this will affect how long the rendered fat will keep without going rancid. Rendered tallow produced this way should be refrigerated.
The other fat-rendering method is the dry method. Here, there are two options, the first of which I do not recommend. (There is one exception: When you cook bacon and pour off the fat, you are actually rendering lard using this method.) With this method, one places the fat on its own in a pot on the stove, in the oven or in a slow cooker. When the rendered fat has sufficiently separated from the cracklings, the cook strains it through a cloth to separate the cracklings. The disadvantage of this method is that you need to stir the pot frequently and monitor it so that it does not get too hot and scorch the fat.
The second dry method is the one I recommend for the home kitchen, which allows you to render fat in the oven without using any water and with no risk of scorching!
- Place the fat in a vegetable steamer, colander or pasta strainer over an oven-safe saucepan or pot. Make sure that there is plenty of space between the bottom of the strainer and the bottom of the pot to allow the rendered fat to collect without touching the bottom of the strainer. If you are making a small amount, a small but deep saucepan with matching vegetable steamer insert will do. If you would like to render up to a gallon of fat, you can use a large pot with a pasta strainer insert, but the insert will need to be from a pot the next size down.
- Place the pot in the oven at 220°F (105°C). This temperature will ensure that any water in the fat tissue will evaporate so that the rendered fat will keep longer.
- Leave the pot in the oven until all of the fat has melted out of the cracklings, mashing and stirring the fat a few times. The rendered fat will drip out into the pot.
- The more fat you are rendering, the longer it will take. For eight pounds (four kilos) of fat—which will produce about a gallon (four liters) of rendered fat—the rendering may take up to twelve to sixteen hours. For this amount, you may want to render the fat overnight, starting around dinner time; mash and stir the fat before bed time and then again first thing in the morning. Otherwise, start early in the day.
- When the cracklings are relatively dry of fat, filter the liquid fat that is in the pot by placing a layer or two of (preferably organic) cloth in a new colander over a new pot and pour the tallow or lard through the cloth. Your rendered fat can then be poured into jars and sealed airtight. Chilling quickly in the fridge will result in a smoother, less grainy end product.
STORING RENDERED FAT
Rendered fats eventually go rancid, resulting in an unpleasant taste and odor. You can recognize rancid fat by its smell, even if you have never smelled it before. Because of their free radical content, rancid fats should be discarded, not consumed.
Five factors determine how quickly rendered fat will go rancid: how unsaturated the fat is and exposure to heat, light, air and moisture. Tallow from suet, for example, will keep longer than tallow from trim fat because the former is more highly saturated. For the same reason, any tallow will keep longer than lard. In fact, because of how saturated it is, tallow is the only rendered fat that you can store well at room temperature. All other rendered fats should be refrigerated—or frozen for long-term storage—which will also keep the rendered fat away from the light. Moisture is the reason why wet rendered fats often do not keep as long. Finally, because of air and moisture issues, you should keep your rendered fat tightly sealed for the longest shelf life.
Kept in a cool, dark place in an airtight container, tallow can keep for years without going rancid. Lard can keep for around a year in the refrigerator in a well-sealed container. Because rendered poultry fats are lower in saturated fats than tallow and lard, you should consume those within a few months.
Rendering fats gives you complete control over the source of the fats and the method of rendering—and you will save money. The best source for nutritious and non-toxic fats is a local farmer whom you trust. Getting your fat from growers who use best practices is important because many toxins are stored in fat. Beef should be grass-fed and grass-finished, and pork should be pasture- or woodlands-raised. Growers often discard the fat when an animal is butchered, so you can let the farm or ranch know of your desire to purchase the fat, particularly if you are purchasing all or part of a butchered animal. In this way, you are also helping to use the whole animal rather than letting good food go to waste.
If you choose to purchase rendered fat rather than rendering it yourself, it is important to know your source; however, it may be difficult to determine how the rendering was done and with what type of fat. As with all foods, unrefined is best. When the fat is refined or highly filtered to remove some or all of its natural scent, it will not contain its optimal innate nutrition. In other words, tallow should smell like tallow! That is why it is important to obtain rendered fat from a trusted local farmer (or use the “Best” category in your WAPF Shopping Guide), being sure to ask questions about what you are getting.
Industrially rendered fats are not recommended. They are not made from carefully selected fat but rather from the offal of industrial slaughterhouses. These commercial products undergo pulverization, steam-heating, refining, bleaching and deodorizing, with the final addition of chemical preservatives such as BHA, BHT and propyl gallate. They may be partially hydrogenated themselves, thus creating trans fats, or they might have hydrogenated vegetable oils added to them. This is clearly not something you want in your kitchen.
USING RENDERED FATS IN COOKING
Animal fats should be incorporated into almost all cooking, even and especially with vegetables to increase the absorption and utilization of nutrients. Animal fats also improve flavor and are very satisfying. Substitute rendered animal fats in recipes that call for vegetable oils. Which fat you use depends on various factors, including cooking temperature. For example, tallow is the best choice for the highest temperature cooking such as deep frying. The more saturated the fat, the more stable it is. As already mentioned, the order from most highly saturated to lowest is tallow, lard and poultry fats.
Apart from deep frying, all of the animal fats are stable enough for most uses. Lard—especially the more mildly flavored leaf lard—can be a great butter substitute for pie crusts and baking. Tallow is heavier and may not be desired by some people for cooking other than deep frying and roasting, but it still works wonderfully for frying and other uses. Like all of the animal fats, it can also be used to great advantage in recipes for beans, soups and stews.
The most unusual use for animal fats is tallow for skin care. Tallow is far better for skin than any other fat because it absorbs so well, being biologically compatible with our skin cell biology.
Armed with the knowledge to render your own fats, your cooking will become more nutritious, flavorful and satisfying!
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2019