School-yard epithets to the contrary, there is nothing derogatory about the word lard. Lard, along with saturated fat, has plenty of monounsaturated fat, vitamin D, and stearic acid (and while I don't happen to think there is anything wrong with saturated fats, no one can complain about those other components). Like beef and poultry, pork has diet-dependent Omega 3:6 ratios, so a well-fed pig will produce Omega 3-rich lard. Lard also has a low smoking point, making it an excellent cooking fat. Lard is simply not the demonic force it has been made out to be. In moderation (as with any food) lard supplies many essential nutrients. At least fresh, straight-from-the-pig lard — hydrogenated lard, found on your supermarket shelf and full of trans fats, is a different story.
Until fairly recently, fresh lard and other unprocessed animal fats were an important part of the human diet, sharing the fat stage with oils from olives, nuts and seeds. However, a series of technological and medical advances have given us a strange, fickle relationship with fats. To vastly oversimplify: First we figured out that we could improve the shelf life of fats by hydrogenating them. Then we all came to believe that animal fats were bad and got a big crush on olive oil. Now, we find that trans fats created by hydrogenating are not so hot. All this back and forth is one of the things that has led me to take up this rule of thumb: have humans eaten it for a couple thousand years or more? If so, I am pretty sure our bodies are equipped to handle it. If not, I think twice about making it a staple.
Where am I going with this? Fresh lard is an excellent, and healthy, cooking fat. And if you want fresh lard, you've pretty much got to render it yourself or pay $6 a lb at a fancy greenmarket stand. Guess which I thought would be more fun?
The process for rendering is simple enough: you simply heat the chopped fat slowly, letting it melt, and then strain out the fried solids. You can do it either over the stovetop or in the oven. The temperature will affect the taste, as will the type of fat. Leaf lard, the tender fat between the pig's organs, is best for pastries, while back fat is best for savory cooking. Lower temperatures are supposed to make for a milder-flavored lard. For my lard, I ordered a giant package of pork back fat from my meat CSA, and, after chopping it, put it in a roughly 300 degree oven for about 6 hours. I'm not sure it was entirely done at that point (Did I mention it takes forever?), as only about half the cracklins had sunk. but I needed the oven back. Lastly, since fresh lard needs to be frozen (or refrigerated for shorter periods), I poured the clear golden lard into muffin tins and canning jars to freeze, where it turned a beautiful clean white as it cooled and solidified.
Rendering lard also has the reputation of being very stinky. Very, very stinky. I didn't have that experience, but it being my first try, and having stopped it early, I honestly can't say whether it was a fluke or not. I was so sure that it would start stinking before all the lard was rendered that I later cooked and re-cooked the cracklins, giving them another 4 hours in the oven, fully expecting them to start stinking any minute. Near the end, I did experience a strange but mild nose-stinging sensation somewhat like when you cook a great deal of chilies. That could have just been from sticking my nose in the oven repeatedly. And I only got about a half cup of lard out of the second cooking, so maybe I was pretty close to done the first time around. Or maybe you just can't really render things in two stages. Next time, and there will definitely be a next time, I'll make sure I let it run its course.