Every good pitmaster knows that fat plays a huge role in a successful barbecue. If the meat doesn’t have enough fat on it, the long cooking process will dry it out. If you’re making homemade pork sausages, it’s especially important to use the correct ratio of meat to fatback.
Fortunately, you can buy pork fat on its own, though it might be difficult to find. Our guide will tell you just where to buy pork fat so you can sidestep any potential “dry spells.”
Where To Buy Pork Fat
When you’re buying fresh ingredients, it’s always a good idea to keep your business local. Even if you prefer to purchase large quantities of frozen pork fat, try to find a neighborhood butcher who keeps it in stock. If you’re unsuccessful, there are plenty of options available online.
About Pork Fat
Even casual chefs will recognize pork fat by its common name, which is lard. You can find it in the baking needs section of a grocery store (see Supermarkets, below), where it will be in its rendered form. That’s why it can be safely stored at room temperature.
Three grades of pork fat are used to make the product we know as lard. Leaf lard is the highest grade, and it comes from the fat that’s located around the pig’s kidneys. Because of its mild flavor and firm, white texture, leaf lard is the preferred choice for pie crusts. This is the type of lard that you’re likely to find on the supermarket shelves.
Fatback represents the next grade of pork fat. As the name suggests, it comes from the back of the hog, just beneath the skin layer. It also has a firm texture, though it’s not quite as hard as leaf lard. The color is slightly darker, too–a creamy shade rather than pure white.
Caul fat is the lowest grade, and it’s found around the hog’s interior organs. Although caul fat is a good choice for wrapping pate or leaner cuts of meat, it doesn’t firm up the way the others do.
Why It’s Important
As we pointed out, fat helps to keep pork from drying out during low-and-slow cooking applications. It’s also the key ingredient that makes pork sausages so plump and juicy. If you’ve ever tasted a sausage made from lean pork, you may have noticed the difference in texture.
When pork fat is fully rendered, it gives the meat a rich, almost sweet flavor. It also allows the meat to crisp up on the outside, creating a unique interplay of textures. Slow-cooked pork carnitas serve as the perfect example. Authentic pulled pork sandwiches also benefit from this phenomenon.
Fresh or Frozen?
It’s possible to buy fresh pork fat, but this isn’t always the best strategy. Though rendered lard can keep for up to six months in the refrigerator, whole chunks of pork fat might spoil much more quickly. This is especially true if there are pink streaks of meat running through the fat.
If you’re planning on using it within a few days, it’s fine to buy fresh pork fatback. Otherwise, we would recommend the frozen variety. That way, you can buy large quantities at once, which is convenient if you think you’ll be using it on a regular basis. Buying in bulk may also save you a great deal of money over time.
Where To Buy Pork Fat
If you’re lucky enough to find a good source for buying pork fat, stick with it. The success of your next barbecue hinges on the quality of your product. If you’re a first-timer, our best advice is to start at the beginning of this list and work your way down.
Take a cue from the farm-to-table movement and begin your search in your own neighborhood. Chances are, there’s a local pig farmer who would be happy to gain a new customer. City dwellers might have to look farther afield, but as long as you can be sure that the pigs were raised in a humane fashion, you’ll have more confidence in your results.
Another option might be to chat with your neighborhood butcher. If you’ve been following our advice, you already have a good working relationship with at least one of them. Ask him or her if it’s possible to get a supply of quality pork fat on special order. They’ll be even more receptive to the request if you tell them you plan on ordering it frequently.
You can buy pork fatback in the supermarket as well. The downside to this approach is that you have no way of knowing where the pigs came from or how they were treated. This can make a great deal of difference in the flavor of the fat as well as the meat.
If you have no choice but to buy from a supermarket, look closely at the label for terms like “hormone-free,” “organic,” “pasture-raised,” or “GMO-free.” When the company is able to make these claims, you should be getting a high-quality product.
When all else fails, the internet is a great resource. Big-box chains like Costco might offer deals on pork fat, but there are also plenty of specialty stores online. If you can, try to find one that operates out of your region so the fat won’t have as far to travel.
The websites are usually easy to navigate, allowing you to buy as much or as little as you need. Some may even provide details about the provenance of the hogs that were used to procure the fat.
In a sense, buying online is the best option because it offers the most variety. On the other hand, you can’t actually see the product beforehand, which is a huge drawback. That’s why we’re listing it as a last resort.
How To Render Your Own Lard
When you buy pork fatback, you can use it to make your own lard. Once you’ve separated the fat from the cracklings, you can refrigerate or freeze the results, keeping a hearty supply on hand for future use.
To begin, dice the fatback into cubes that measure about 1 cubic inch. The math doesn’t have to be exact–you’re just looking for pieces that are medium-sized and fairly uniform in terms of shape. If the fatback is frozen into a block, you’ll have to wait for it to thaw before separating it into slices. Then it’s ready to be diced up.
Dicing the fat is the most time-consuming aspect of the process, so be sure to plan ahead. If you’re working with more than a few pounds of fatback, make sure to clean the knife frequently. You may even need to take a break to resharpen the blade.
Alternatively, you can dice the fat in the food processor. Use the regular blade and pulse it a few times until the fat is roughly chopped. Just be very careful not to over-process it, or you’ll wind up with a sticky mess.
The best way to render the fat is to use a slow cooker. Set the temperature to low, add about a cup of water along with the fat, and leave the lid off. Don’t be tempted to rush the process by using a higher temperature–this will cause the fat to brown, giving the lard the flavor of cooked meat.
If you don’t have a slow cooker, you can use a regular stock pot. After adding the water and fat, set the pot over a low burner. In either case, you’ll want to keep a close eye on it and begin stirring the mixture when it starts to bubble.
Make sure to wear long sleeves when making your own lard. If you’ve ever cooked bacon on a stove top, you’ll know that pork fat tends to splatter when it gets hot. Because you’ve added water to the mix, it will foam and sputter even more.
In about 4 to 5 hours, the diced fat (or cracklings) will turn brown and slowly sink to the bottom of the pot. When this happens, the lard is done. It may not take as long, depending on how much fat you had to work with and the performance of your slow cooker. The only way to be sure is to keep watching the pot as the fat renders.
Strain the lard using a colander lined with cheesecloth. You might want to repeat this process a second time, just to be on the safe side.
Pour the strained lard into wide-mouthed glass containers with tight-fitting lids. Then refrigerate or freeze as needed.
The Bottom Line
A true barbecue fan should always keep a robust supply of lard on hand. Even if you don’t plan to make your own sausages, the ingredient can be used in many other dishes, even desserts. When you know where to buy pork fat, your dishes will come alive with flavor.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!