Photo: Flickr user cafemama

After returning from Ukraine, you’d think I would have had enough lard to last the rest of the year, and indeed, there were a few days not long after I got back when all I craved all day was miso soup and grapefruit. But I had two packages of leaf lard (the creamy pink fat from around a pig’s kidneys) in the freezer that I had picked up at the farmer’s market before I left, and my friend Wendy had long been offering to teach me how to remove the impurities by rendering it. It’s the holidays and I’ve got pies to bake, so what’s a girl to do?

Given the general hipness of pork products right now (announcements about snout-to-tail dinners, pig roasts, hog butchering classes, and pork belly specials pour into my inbox with a frequency no other meat enjoys), I’m surprised by how many people still shrink back in disgust at the mention of lard. It seems to have been so vilified in the 1980s and ‘90s diet crusades against animal fats that people, many of whom have never tried it before, believe that lard not is not only unhealthy but also tastes bad. Certainly everyone is entitled to their opinion, but if your mind is not already made up, let me assure you—there is much to love about lard.

I grew up looking forward to the few times a year (at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter) that anything containing lard showed up on the table. My mom’s family short crust recipe, which my Norwegian great-grandmother Sophie used for many of her desserts, calls for it. Lard makes for a dazzlingly flaky crust and a lush, almost umami flavor that makes sweet pies and pastries pop. (The same principle makes salted caramel cupcakes and bacon-wrapped dates so alluring.) In Ukrainian cuisine, it complements the malty heft of a genuine dark rye bread with a savory creaminess, kicked up a notch with the addition of mashed garlic and coriander seeds studding the crust.

Leaf lard is softer and has a purer, creamier flavor than fatback (the fat from underneath the pig’s skin), so it’s the best choice if you’re planning to make pastry.

Whatever your meal plans, if you purchase lard from a butcher or farmer’s market, you’ll likely need to transform it from a hunk of fat into a measurable, uniform substance before using it in your recipe. This process is called rendering, and it’s an easy way to make yourself feel like a real pioneer in the kitchen. There’s something weirdly satisfying and old-timey about turning something so obviously cut from the body of an animal into a more familiar and readily usable ingredient. It makes me feel frugal and indulgent at the same time, salvaging a cheap “byproduct” that would otherwise go to waste to create such rich, rare (to us now) flavors.

Rendering lard, it turns out, is simple. (A huge thank you to Wendy for guiding me through this process!) Chop up your hunk of fat into one- to two-inch pieces or use a food processor to whir it into something resembling pink cottage cheese. (This step isn’t essential—it just helps the fat melt faster.) Then dump it into a heavy-bottomed pan and heat it over medium heat, stirring occasionally until it all melts.

Let it simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the small solid pieces resembling bacon that refuse to melt have crisped up on the outside but not burned. Strain them out with a slotted spoon and let them drain a plate lined with paper toweling. You can use these “cracklings” just as you would bacon bits: strew them over dumplings, potatoes, or vegetable dishes—if you don’t gobble them all down there and then, while they are still nearly bubbling,

Add a little water (roughly 2 tablespoons for every pound of lard you started with) to the rest of the lard and let it cool to room temperature, then pour it into a container and transfer it to the refrigerator. As it chills, the heavier water will sink to the bottom and take any impurities left in the fat with it.

When the lard has solidified, just drain out the water and scrape off the undermost layer. Your lard should keep in the fridge for three to four months, or in the freezer almost indefinitely—just be sure to keep it airtight and out of the door to avoid dreaded freezerburn.

Wendy and I pan-fried coconut shrimp and sautéed mixed greens with thinly sliced onions in a little of our lard, washing them down with a bottle of Prosecco. The hint of porky depth the lard lent to our light meal turned it from a summery snack into a hearty December supper. We were both too full for dessert, but there’s plenty more lard for that: next up, apple fritters!