When you smoke a cut of pork, you want the fat to render out so that the meat is juicy and flavorful. That brings us to the question: At what temp does pork fat render, and why is this such an important stage of the smoking process?
What Temp Does Pork Fat Render?
Pork fat begins to render when it hits the 130-140 degree range. Before that, it will remain in its solid form. The fat needs to be held at this temperature for several hours in order to render properly. When it’s heated too quickly, the fat will burn instead.
About Pork Fat
Along with oxygen, fat is one of the main sources of energy for muscle tissue. You may already know that fat contains a lot of calories, which are units of potential energy. What you might not know is that fats, or lipids, come in several different forms.
Subcutaneous fats are the hard layers of fat just beneath the skin. Intermuscular fats, meanwhile, are layered between groups of muscle. Both of these are less than desirable from a culinary standpoint.
Intramuscular fats, on the other hand, are woven between the muscle fibers themselves. If you’re a grilling enthusiast, you’ve probably heard this type of fat referred to as marbling.
You’ll also find large pockets of fat surrounding the major organs. On pigs, the fat around the kidneys—known as leaf fat—is typically used to make lard.
Because fat absorbs many of the compounds that are found in the food that the pig eats, it’s a source of intense flavor. Rendered fat is also essential to the texture of slow-smoked meats.
At What Temp Does Pork Fat Render?
Fat begins to melt at 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Before this occurs, the fat will have a tough, waxy texture.
As it renders, the fat lubricates the muscle fibers as they lose moisture from the heat. Unlike water, it won’t evaporate, so the meat will stay juicy even as the temperature rises and the fibers begin to shrink and toughen.
Fat rendering is a slow process. You can’t just heat the fat to 130 degrees and expect it to melt away instantly. In fact, the fat needs to be exposed to these temperatures for 3 to 4 hours in order for the heat to do its work.
Is Pork Fat Unhealthy?
As far as animal fats are concerned, pork fat isn’t considered the worst. The fat contains high levels of vitamin B, as well as a few other minerals that are essential components of a healthy diet.
That’s not to say that you should eat spoonfuls of lard in the hope that it will lead to better health. In addition to being high in sodium, it’s a saturated fat, which means that it remains solid at room temperature—unlike unsaturated fats such as olive oil.
Most experts recommend limiting saturated fat intake to around 10 percent of your daily allotment of calories. That means if you normally take in 2,000 calories per day, you should consume no more than 10 grams of saturated fat in the same period.
How To Render Pork Fat On The Smoker
When meat is on the smoker, something magical takes place. There’s a reason why this cooking method is best suited to rich, fatty cuts—the process transforms the meat’s specific components into the best versions of themselves.
Most of the cuts that are usually reserved for the smoker—beef brisket, pork shoulder, and pork ribs—contain a great deal of fat and connective tissue. This connective tissue consists of collagen, which can toughen the meat when it’s cooked too quickly.
When you heat collagen at a low temperature, though, it will break down instead of contracting and toughening up. This creates the gelatinous substance that tenderizes and flavors the meat.
Something similar is happening when the fat begins to render. At 130 to 140 degrees, the triglycerides, or fatty acids, are melting into the surrounding meat fibers. If you allow this process to continue over several hours, most of the fat will convert to liquid.
What If The Fat Isn’t Rendering?
First of all, don’t panic. If it looks like the fat on your pork butt or rib rack is still solid, you’re probably lifting the lid of the smoker too much. In the early stages of the cook, it’s crucial to leave the meat alone and let the smoker do its work.
That brings us to the first possibility: the smoker temperature is too low. Check the gauge to see if the unit is maintaining your set temp. If it’s hovering 15 or 20 degrees below where you want it, try setting it a bit higher.
On the other end of the spectrum, the fat won’t render right if the meat is cooking too quickly. Instead, it will be charred and rubbery, which is exactly what you don’t want when you’ve put in all this time.
If you suspect that the pork is cooking too fast, lower the smoker temperature. The rendering process takes place over several hours. As every pitmaster knows, you can’t rush a good barbecue.
How To Make Lard
For best results, put the fat in the freezer for at least an hour before making lard. If the fat is at room temperature, it will be harder to work with.
Trim away any visible scraps of meat or connective tissue from the fat. Don’t get too fussy—these won’t harm your results—but it will make your job easier if the fat is clean before you begin.
Pro Tip: If you don’t want to take the time to trim the fat, or if you don’t have quite enough fat to make the process worth your time, consider adding the scraps to homemade sausage instead.
Use a sharp knife to dice the fat, making the cubes as small as possible. As an alternative, you can mince the fat in a food processor. In either case, the fat will need to be very cold, or it will soften too much as you work.
Set the fat in a large skillet or heavy-bottomed pot over low heat. Let it heat slowly, stirring from time to time with a wooden spoon, until the fat is clear and any remaining cracklings are golden brown and crisp, about 3 to 4 hours.
Remove the pan from the heat. Let it cool for a while, but try not to wait until the fat has had a chance to solidify. If this happens, you’ll need to reheat the fat before you can move on to the next step.
Set a layer of cheesecloth over a clean jar or other heatproof container. Strain the lard into the jar, filtering out the solids. You can either discard these cracklings or set them aside for another use.
Lard can be stored at room temperature, but we like to keep it in the fridge. In either case, the fat should turn a creamy white color as it solidifies.
When stored in the freezer, lard should keep indefinitely. We would recommend freezing it in small containers, so you can thaw just as much as you need.
Pork fat doesn’t render in a hurry, but smoking meat requires a great deal of patience in any case. Let the smoker do its work, and you’ll be rewarded with pork that’s bursting with rich, juicy flavor.