The Fat Kitchen: Rendering and Cooking with Fat

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The only real drawback to rendering your own fats is time. Regardless of the type of fat you’re working with, the process is pretty much the same. Chop the fat into small pieces (1-inch dice or smaller), put in a heavy pot, and add a small amount of water to prevent scorching until the fat begins to melt.

Step 1: Chop the fat, if necessary. With tallow and lard, it’s helpful if it’s very cold — even frozen.

Step 2: Transfer the chopped fat to a heavy pot, adding just enough water to cover the bottom of the pot to prevent scorching.

Melt the fat over low to medium heat, stirring frequently; don’t let it bubble furiously. When the solid bits begin to color, begin removing and straining the fat through a fine-mesh strainer into storage containers. Ideally, the fat will be entirely neutral in taste, but the longer the melted fat remains with the solid golden or browned bits, the meatier the fat will taste. If your fat tastes too “porky” or “beefy” to you, it’s probably been allowed to sit with the browned bits for too long. So be vigilant and watch for browning.

Step 3: Put the pot over low heat, and ladle off the fat as it melts, straining it into a bowl. Don’t let the rendered fat sit on the browning bits, or it’ll pick up meaty flavors.

Step 4: Discard or feed the cracklings from tallow to pets. The cracklings from chicken and pork are delicious crisped in a skillet, seasoned with salt, and eaten.

Some people like to render in a covered roasting pan in the oven at 250 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. In this way, they avoid the necessity of keeping watch over the rendering. It takes longer in the oven, and more odors accumulate in the house. It’s also hard to judge when it’s time to start pouring off the rendered fat, so there’s the danger of letting the fat develop the meaty flavors I try to avoid.

Beefy, porky, or poultry odors do accumulate in the house when rendering fat. If you don’t have good ventilation in the kitchen, and the odors are a problem for you, you can render the fat in a slow cooker set outside on a porch or deck — I do this sometimes. Start it at high heat, then reduce the heat to low once the fat starts to render, and leave the lid off so condensation doesn’t drip back into the fat.

I find that rendering on top of the stove is quicker than in the oven, resulting in less odor. The only drawback to rendering on the stovetop is that there will occasionally be a miniature steam explosion that will “pop,” causing a small spatter of grease that can burn you if you happen to be standing near.

Batch sizes don’t matter. Render a little at a time or render in big batches — whatever works for you. However, if you’re working in big batches, ladle off fat as it renders to prevent flavors from developing.

Essential Equipment

A cook prepares to render lard, tallow, and poultry fat to use in cooking.

Before you attempt the process of rendering your own fats, you’ll need to have the following equipment:

  • Cookware: Whether you’re rendering on top of the stove or in the oven, heavy cookware is recommended. Avoid lightweight pots, which can allow the fat to scorch. A slow cooker works fine, too.
  • Knives or Cleavers: In order to get the purest, most neutral-tasting tallow or lard, you’ll want to start with the smallest pieces possible, which enables you to quickly melt the fat and get it off the solid bits before they start browning and flavoring the fat. So before you start, consider first how to get your fat into small, quickly melted pieces. You can use a knife or cleaver on a cutting board. I use a cleaver, and it takes me about an hour to chop up 8 pounds of suet, because it’s so hard; chopping lard goes faster.
  • Food Processor or Meat Grinder: Some people use a food processor with a grating disc, and some use a meat grinder that’s either freestanding or attached to a stand mixer. The food processor or meat grinder should be well-chilled before using, and even then the work will get gummed up — and the more moving parts, the greater the cleanup. However, the fat will melt faster if it’s ground or grated, thus reducing the chance of picking up meaty flavors. I’ve found that a powerful, freestanding meat grinder works best. The grinder attachment on my stand mixer gets gummed up, and the tough collagen plugs up the works. You’ll still need a cutting board and cleaver to get the suet or lard into pieces small enough to fit into the chute.
  • Ladle, Spoon, and Strainer: You’ll need a ladle to transfer the melted fat out of the pot and into a strainer to remove the remaining solids. You’ll also need a spoon for occasionally stirring the melting fat — along with something to rest the spoon on. If your strainer isn’t fine mesh, you can line it with paper coffee filters, but you’ll go through a lot of them as they become saturated. I don’t recommend straining through cheesecloth or butter muslin because they’ll have to be hand-washed in extremely hot water, and the wash water dumped outside; don’t wash fat-coated cloth in your washing machine, or you could ruin your plumbing.
  • Storage Containers: Consider what sort of container will hold the strained fat — and how easy it will be both to store the containers and to extract the fat as you need it. Because tallow is so hard, I pour the melted fat into a glass 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Once it’s solid, I slice it, remove it in strips with a spatula, and store it in a flat plastic container. Lard and poultry fats are spoonable, so I put them in plastic deli containers or wide-mouth canning jars.

NOTE: If you’re using glass canning jars, especially if they’re old and have been used in the freezer, it’s a good idea to keep them warm in a 200-degree oven, as you would if you were canning jam or pickles.

Cleanup Strategies

  • Consider how you’ll clean everything, because you don’t want the fat or fat residues to go down the kitchen sink. Fat that turns solid at room temperature will solidify in the pipes, causing all sorts of problems.
  • To clean my pot and utensils, I heat a large pot of water to a boil, dip the utensils in the hot water, rub them clean with paper towels, then wash them. The pot I rendered the fat in gets the remaining hot water sloshed in, then dumped out outside. Next, I rub it clean with paper towels, then wash it.

This article, along with the following recipes, were excerpted with permission from The Fat Kitchen, by Andrea Chesman, published by Storey Publishing.

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