If you have ever hunted wild game or purchased a whole animal direct from a local farmer, you may have found yourself presented with a whole pile of animal fat and wondered, “what am I going to do with all that fat?”
Rendered animal fats can be used in cooking. When harvested ethically, rendered and stored correctly, animal fast can provide a frugal and sustainable alternative to expensive imported oils. They also have high heat stability and remain solid at room temperature, making them well suited for outdoor living and open fire cooking.
But, did you know that rendered animal fat can be used in bushcraft and wilderness survival too? Understanding and acquiring this skill is an important foundation block in our exploration of the historic and the modern uses of this natural resource.
Let’s get rendering!
What is Rendering?
Rendering is the process of extracting pure fat from a fat-rich piece of an animal’s body that likely contains other impurities such as blood, connective tissue, water or meat.
To render animal fat, one melts it at a low temperature. As the animal fat heats up, the protein impurities get cooked into solids, called “cracklings,” and the water evaporates. While the fat is still in its liquid form, the solid impurities can be filtered- leaving the transparent, pure liquid animal fat. The pure fat must be cooled to room temperature, returning to an opaque solid block of beautifully clean, white fat ready for use.
The name of the final product varies, depending on the animal fat used:
- pork fat becomes lard
- beef and lamb fat becomes tallow
- bird fat becomes schmaltz
- butter fat becomes ghee
Despite all their different names – the process is the same.
Rendering Fat Is (Potentially) Dangerous
Keep in mind that one can purchase rendered animal fat at the store and consider the following points carefully before committing to a fat-rendering project at home.
Be aware that if one fails to accurately control the temperature of the fat, one can potentially create a large fat fire.
These fires are extremely difficult to extinguish and require special fire-fighting equipment. The larger the amount of fat, the larger the potential fire and the harder it will be to put it out.
Make sure to have a fat fire plan in place. Assemble and prepare your fire-fighting equipment before you begin your fat rendering.
Accidentally spilling hot fat can also burn you severely.
Hot fat cannot be easily washed off skin under water. Move slowly and carefully. Dress appropriately. Use a ladle to gently spoon the fat into your filter rather than trying to pour the liquid fat from a heavy container. The ladle may drip a bit but at least it won’t splash litres of boiling fat all over you or your working surface.
Maneuvering a heavy pot of boiling fat is dangerous. Use a ladle to stay fully in control.
Make sure you are knowledgeable and equipped to deal with a fat burn first aid emergency before undertaking a fat rendering project.
Over-heated fat will bubble and spatter, especially when stirred.
Wear protective eyewear when lifting the lid.
When rendering fat on the open fire, one also needs to carefully consider the risk of flying sparks and flames igniting your fat. Use coals with very little or no flame and avoid firewood that sparks or explodes.
Using a lid on the fat rendering vessel may help protect the fat from sparks and excessive evaporation- but it will also obscure your vision so be extra prudent.
If the pot is heavy (i.e. cast iron dutch oven), check that the lid can be safely removed. Carelessly or hastily spilling liquid fat into the fire is very dangerous. Sometimes it’s easier to take the whole unit (pot and lid) off the fire before lifting the lid.
Keep the weight of the fat and the rendering vessel well supported and stable.
We also recommend rendering a few batches of fat at a controlled temperature (in a slow cooker or oven with a constant and reliable temperature) before attempting to render fat on the stove or open fire.
When you are cleaning up a rendered fat spill and drip, use a rag or recycled paper towel that you can throw away- but don’t put them into the garbage! Oils on rags and paper can spontaneously combust. Burn them as a fire-starter or dispose of them carefully.
We hope these comments will help you stay safe if you decide to undertake a fat rendering project at home too!
Where to Get Fat For A Rendering Project
One of the cheapest ways to obtain raw fat for rendering is to start saving fat that might normally be wasted:
- trim off the visible fat on your meat
- forgo the chicken skin
- save the bacon drippings
- make your own broth and skim off the fat
Put these fat scraps into a freezer bag for a rainy day fat rendering project. Kitchen scraps make low-grade lard that can be used for bushcraft and survival experiments but probably shouldn’t be used for human consumption.
Butchering meat yourself or purchasing a meat share from a butcher can also be an excellent source of fat for a rendering project. However, make sure to select an ethically raised, grass-fed animal as some fat-soluble chemicals make it through the rendering process into the final product.
Some butchers process more animal fat than they are able to sell. Rather than see it wasted, many are happy to see it go to a good client, or a good cause, at an affordable price. Call around to see who might have extra fat available for purchase or ask if they wouldn’t mind setting some aside for this project.
Also, keep in mind that each type of fat has its own favours and properities. Tallow from beef has a more solid consistency at room temperature which makes it ideal for craft projects like candles or soap where you want a solid final product. Lard from pigs is reputed for flaky pastries and delicious potato or bean dishes.
How to Render Animal Fat Outdoors
Step 1: Prepare the Fat
As a general rule, frozen fat is easier to handle than cold fat; cold fat can be slippery, slimy and unpredictable which makes it difficult to chop safely. In my experiments, I observed that the beef fat I obtained was particularly easy to prepare because it was so beautifully dry and solid.
Trim off any large bits of meat that are still attached to the fat. Don’t worry too much about the small bits as they will be cooked into delicious little deep fried cracklings and will be filtered out during the rendering process.
Chop the fat into small pieces by hand. Smaller chunks will cook faster and produce smaller, more palatable cracklings but the job does not require a food processor or mincer. Touching the fat might seem gross at first; however, it’s going great for your skin. If you are determined to use an electric machine to do the chopping, do small batches of very frozen, medium-sized chunks of fat- otherwise one can end up with a slimy mess and clogged blades and a wrecked machine.
Step 2: Melt The Fat
Heat the fat at a very low temperature. At or just above 100°C or 212°F is apparently ideal – hot enough to boil off any water, but not so hot that the proteins start to smoke or burn. Burned cracklings will make the fat taste bad and can also potentially lead to fat fires.
A slow cooker on “low” is ideal – but you can also render fat in an oven, a heavy bottomed pot on a stove top or even in a dutch oven over coals on a camp-fire.
The smell of rendering fat seems to upset sensitive noses. Some people feel that the evaporating fat and odours stick to their walls and cupboards for weeks. I was not bothered by it but it does small a bit like bacon frying in the house for a few days. If you do a batch of beef lard, it smells like hamburgers or deep fried oil.
In bear country, one had better have a bear spray handy when rendering animal fat on the open fire.
Wherever the fat rendering station, make sure it is safe and stable.
Heat the fat up slowly, stirring occasionally. If the fat bubbles aggressively, reduce the temperature to a slow simmer.
Generally, its a good idea to add water to prevent your fat from burning. For example, I always add about one cup to my slow cooker and about 2 cups to my dutch oven when I am rendering on an open fire.
Adding water can slightly complicate the process as any excess will need to be removed at the end. Hhaving a bit of water allows certain solubles to dissolve better and leads to a pearly white final product. As the liquid cools, the “brown broth sludge” sinks and the fat rises- like when one puts chicken broth in the fridge.
Melt the fat until there are small, browned cracklings in a bath of clear fat.
As the fat melts, the remaining tissues lose their buoyancy and start heading for the bottom. Thus, stirring becomes increasing important as the project matures.
Carefully watch the bottom of the pot. All the liquid fat will rise- leaving the protein in a sort of broth at the bottom. As the water in the broth evaporates, the protein tissues will want to stick to the bottom. This all happens rather suddenly, you can easily burn the protein if you aren’t watching carefully enough. Take them off the heat before things start to stick too badly or the burning protein can discolour your fat. Great neglect could lead to a fat fire.
Cooking times will vary depending on the heating method, volume and size of the fat pieces – but know that it will likely take many hours (half day at least, if not the whole day sometimes). You can always stop your project and remove it from all sources of heat- if you need to leave. One should not leave simmering fat unattended.
Remove from the heat and allow the product to cool a little bit before filtering. Be careful- move slowly and stay completely under control to avoid sloshing the hot fat around. Laundering tea towels and oven mitts that have become saturated with fat is a lot of work- use hot water and good soap.
Do not cool the fat so much that it starts to solidify otherwise it will not filter properly.
Step 3. Filter The Fat
If dry rendering (without using added water, you can filter directly into the jars you’ll be storing the fat in.
Strain using a metal strainer or metal funnel lined with open-weave cotton or linen fabric (cheese cloth, handkerchief, dishtowel…)
If wet rendering, one will need to filter into a container (like a bowl) and place it in the fridge until solid. Once solid, the water will separate from the fat and you can lift away the purified fat from the water-broth. The misshapen lump may need to be melted again to get it to fit into its final container.
One will also be left with a pile of cracklings. Some people, like my mother, like to eat them or make bread out of them. Personally, I do not feel the need for extra fat in my diet so I press the cracklings into a suet block container which I save in the freezer for the wild birds. This saves buying commercial suet.
Warm Rendered Fat Is Liquid and Golden.
The Liquid Fat Turns Creamy White As It Cools (Like This Lard From A Previous Batch)
How to Store Rendered Fat
Properly rendered fat can be kept at room temperature in a cupboard for a very long time. The exact length is dependent on the purity of the fat. When it goes bad, it becomes rancid and smelly.
If you are planning to eat it, I recommend keeping it in the fridge or freezer just to be safe. Use questionable rendered fat for projects like candle making and keep the fresh product for human consumption.
Project Cost Analysis
Cooking and baking with lard appears to be somewhat attractive economically (at least at first glance). Here is an example of the cost breakdown for our project which yielded nearly 4.5 kg of lard:
- Drive to the Butcher Shop and Back $2
- Lard Purchase $5
- Wild Bird Suet Block -$2
Total Project Cost: $5
However… one must also consider the many hours spent lard-sitting…the potential risks of fire and personal injury…the health implications of adding 4.5 kg of lard to your pantry…
We feel that learning the skill of rendering animal fat is valuable from a historical, educational, zero-waste and self-reliance perspective.
In future articles, we intend to face the challenge of using the 4.5 kg of mountain of lard we created. It will also be interesting to see how the homemade lard compares with commercially produced lard products in open-fire cooking, bushcraft and survival applications. Stay tuned!