Turning Over a New Leaf

Way, way back in 2006, I read an article in the New York Times about pie crust. The perfect pie crust, to be more precise. Long time readers of this blog know that I have a vested interest in this topic – I am determined to master that simple yet surprisingly difficult pastry. If I’m being completely honest with myself, I want people to notice my pie crusts, to be struck by their perfect balance of tenderness and flakiness. This is not a humble goal, I realize, but hey, the goal’s not for ME to be perfect – just the crust.

So anyway, back in ’06, there was an article on making the perfect pie crust, and while I read it, intrigued, I didn’t actually do anything with that article, or achieve that crust, until half a decade later. Why is that, you may be wondering? What stopped this lady, who seems to balk at no challenge, no matter how ridiculously complex or silly, from making her dream crust? I’ll tell you in two words.

Pig. Fat.

Specifically, leaf lard. Y’see, pig fat comes in three grades. The lowest grade is caul fat, which is far too soft for pastry baking. It’s found around the digestive organs of the pig and is typically used for sausage casings and for adding much-needed fat to lean cuts of meat. Next up is fatback, the fat to which we’re most accustomed. It’s found between the skin and the muscle, and it’s the fat of your slab bacon and chicharrón fame. Fat back is actually plenty hard, and renders out well. The problem become obvious though, if you’ve ever eaten bacon, or chicharróns, or lardons. Fatback tastes like meat. It makes an awesome fat if you want to make some french fries (though suet, which is beef fat, was traditional before vegetable oil became the norm) but in a dessert it’s somewhat disconcerting.

So, leaf lard! Like caul fat, it’s a visceral fat, meaning it’s found around organs, in this case the kidneys and the loin. Unlike caul fat, it’s hard, has a fairly high smoke point, and unlike fatback, it has very little porky taste. In short, it’s a dream fat for baking. While I typically use an all-butter crust, for the flavor, (because I think shortening is kind of nasty) there are problems with butter as your primary fat – largely, that it is not just fat. It’s milk solids – that’s the deliciousness – but there’s also water in there. If you’ve read the post linked above, you know that means gluten, and too much gluten is the enemy of tenderness. A half-butter, half-pure fat crust is the way to go, but again, shortening is yucky. However, we can hearken back to the days of our ancestors with some leaf lard – good old fashioned animal fat!

But the article, by Melissa Clark, made using the lard seem a bit arduous. I didn’t want my house to smell like a pig, nor did I want to pay $20-$30 for pre-rendered fat. And so, I put it out of my mind for a time, and settled for a less-than-perfect (but still pretty delicious) all-butter crust.

So what changed, you might wonder? Well, for one thing, this blog. Rendering my own pig fat and baking a pie with it seemed like an appropriate task for these pages. Then too, since 2006 we’ve gotten more Farmer’s Markets and organic meat possibilities in the area – I have more access to weird offal these days.

And so, on a recent trip to the brand-new Somerville Winter Farmer’s Market, I decided to ask the fine ladies of Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm if they had any leaf lard. They did, pretty much just enough for my purposes. I purchased it and began my adventure!

Here’s the lard before anything is done to it:
It can’t be used like this, it needs to be rendered. Remdering makes the lard stable and removes all of the extra, non-fat bits that we don’t need in our pie. I followed the instructions on Chichi Wang’s awesome Serious Eats column, The Nasty Bits. (Seriously, if you need recipes for weird spare parts of animals, she’s got it.) It seemed easy enough!

Cut the fat into bits:
At this point there was definitely a slight “barnyard” odor to the fat. I feared that the entire household would annoyed with me, but it was far too cold to open a window.

Add some water and start cooking at a low temperature!
Seriously, you just really have to leave it alone and stir on occasion. The water keeps the fat from burning and also improves the end product.

Surprisingly, the cooking fat odor didn’t really extend beyond the pot it was in. I just let it do its thing, stirring it every ten minutes or so, until the cracklings (think pork rinds, though these were tiny) started to fizz in the pot:

Eventually, these release most of their fat and sink to the bottom of the pot:
Nearly There
These get strained out of the fat. You can basically eat them as a little, very decadent snack later!
Or not, if that wigs you out.

Here was my prize, about 2 cups of liquid gold:
Liquid Gold

I just cooled this and stuck it in the freezer in preparation for my next pie:
Rendered Leaf Lard

Pretty easy, and not nearly as smelly or painful as Ms. Clark led me to believe! There is something very satisfying about a project like this, using up the bits of an animal that might otherwise go to waste.

In my next post, I’ll show you the resulting pie! There will also be a poll about our next food adventure, so watch out for that.


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