How to Make Cooking Oil and Fat

Take the next step toward food self-sufficiency by making cooking oil from seeds and nuts, making butter and rendering lard and tallow.
By Joanna Poncavage
December 2013/January 2014
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Store-bought butter doesn’t begin to compare to homemade, creamy butter made from the milk of a healthy cow.
Photo By Matthew T. Stallbaumer
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If you pride yourself on doing most of your grocery shopping in your backyard (“Tomatoes? Check. Eggs? Check. Berries? Check.”), you may be interested in learning how to make cooking oils and render your own cooking fats. Making creamy butter, rendering lard and tallow from pork and beef fat, or coaxing nuts or seeds to give up their liquid riches is worth your time.

How to Make Butter

Butter is simple to make. Step 1: Milk your cow. No cow? Find a local source of heavy cream. Add the cream to a quart canning jar until the jar is one-third full. Screw on the lid and shake the jar until you see the butter bits separate from the liquid, which is now buttermilk. You can also make butter much faster using a blender or food processor.

Strain the butter bits out of the buttermilk and place the fresh butter in a bowl. Use a paddle or spatula to press the butter under cold, running water until the water runs clear. Some sources recommend salting at this stage to remove the last of the buttermilk. One quart of heavy cream can yield up to 1 pound of butter. To make even better-tasting cultured butter, read How to Make Butter That Is Really Flavorful.

Rendering Lard

Fat rendered from pigs, called lard, has been used for centuries for cooking, lighting, lubrication and soap. Lard is particularly good for frying, because it can be heated to a high temperature without burning. Lard contains less saturated fat than butter, and lard rendered from humanely raised pigs with access to fresh air and pasture is better for you than the bleached, deodorized and hydrogenated lard commonly produced from pigs raised in industrial confinement and fed antibiotics and growth stimulants.

There was a time when hog farmers actually earned more money from rendering pig fat than they earned from the pork, says Oscar H. Will III, Editor-in-Chief of Grit magazine. But for most hog farmers today, the opposite is true.

For a collection of lard lore and recipes — including a lard pie crust recipe — read a review of Grit’s book Lard at The Lost Art of Cooking With Lard.

(The book is available on our shopping site. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS)

Rendering Tallow

In Sutherlin, Ore., Wardee Harmon and family recently raised a beef cow and had it butchered locally. Half-Jersey and half-Angus, the cow was raised on Jersey milk and high-quality hay and pasture.

“She turned out well; her meat had no comparison and the fat was really luscious. When I rendered it down, we had an exceptionally large amount of tallow,” says Harmon, who writes a blog that focuses on real foods and traditional food preparation.

“Tallow is fantastic for frying vegetables or onion rings dipped in sourdough batter,” she says. “You can use it anywhere you use butter, in casseroles and for sautéing.” Harmon also uses tallow to make skin-care ointments and soap.

Rendering Basics

To render lard or tallow, first procure the highest-quality fat you can find; check with local farmers raising heritage breeds or with a nearby butcher. Preheat your oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit, and then add ground or chopped fat (see photo) to a heavy casserole pan or Dutch oven. Place the uncovered pan in the oven, and stir every 45 minutes. Cook slowly until the fat has melted and you see protein particles, called “cracklings,” floating on top. Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool slightly. Strain the fat through a cheesecloth-lined sieve into glass canning jars, and let it cool completely before covering it. Store it in the refrigerator for up to two months, or in the freezer for up to a year. For more detailed instructions, go to How to Render Lard.

Go Nutty With Vegetable Oils

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, or you don’t have livestock to use for the production of lard, tallow or butter, many different kinds of nuts and seeds — including almonds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts — can be pressed into vegetable oil. (See “Start the Presses,” later in this article.) Different types of nuts and seeds produce varying amounts of oil depending on their oil-to-seed ratio. To produce 1 quart of oil, you will need to press 2.9 pounds of walnuts, 3.6 pounds of hazelnuts, 4.6 pounds of peanuts, or 5.3 pounds of canola, pumpkin or sunflower seeds.

When growing pumpkins for their oil-rich seed, make sure you grow oilseed varieties, such as ‘Williams Naked Seeded Pumpkin.’ If you’re interested in pressing grape seed oil, check with a local winery for grape seeds, which are often discarded. All of these raw ingredients used to make high-quality homemade cooking oils contain vitamins, minerals and micronutrients we need for optimum health.

Homemade oils also add flavor. “Toasted pumpkin seed oil is so delicious that it turns bread into cake,” says Lyle Estill, an oil-press expert and author of Small Is Possible, a book about community-powered responses to resource depletion.

Homesteader Cindy Conner praises the taste, but also values home-pressed oil for its freshness. Conner has pressed oil from black walnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts and sunflowers, and says, “At the very least, pressing your own oils and fats will make you more aware of where your food comes from.” (Learn more about Conner’s oil-pressing adventures on her blog posts.)

Soppin’ Up Sunflower Seed Oil

All sunflower seeds will produce oil, but the black oilseed types will yield the most. Plus, because these sunflower seeds are smaller than the striped, snack-type seeds, they’re easier to press.

If you’re looking for sunflower seeds you can save and replant each year, try ‘Peredovik,’ a Russian oilseed variety available in small quantities through Southern Exposure Seed Exchange or in 50-pound bags from Hancock Seed Company. For a nutritionally superior hybrid variety, try ‘NuSun,’ which has been developed by traditional plant-breeding methods to have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. For more information about ‘NuSun,’ visit the National Sunflower Association. (Find ‘Peredovik’ and other sunflower varieties with our Seed and Plant Finder.)

You may be tempted to buy a big bag of black oil sunflower seeds packaged as bird food, and this may give you good oil, but it’s risky, says Rob Myers, adjunct professor of plant science at the University of Missouri. “Handling regulations for birdseed are less stringent than for food-grade sunflowers. If the seed is stored at a high temperature, the oil may be off-flavor.”

Give sunflowers plenty of room to grow, full sun, adequate water and rich soil. When seeds are ripe, cut the heads from the stalks and allow the seeds to finish drying. Knock the dried seeds loose by vigorously rubbing the heads against hardware cloth. For more information about growing, harvesting and pressing sunflower seeds, go to Growing Sunflowers: From History to Cultivation.

Crazy for Canola Oil

Named for “Canada” and “oil,” canola oil comes from a brassica developed from rapeseed. Spring-planted and winter-planted canola varieties are available. Spring types need to be planted early, Myers says. Plant winter canola late in the season — September, in most regions — to prevent flowering in fall.

Harvesting smaller plantings by hand is time-intensive but not difficult, Myers says. Cut the canola plants and hit them against a tarp laid on the ground (or walk on them) to knock the seeds loose. To clean them, put the seeds through a screen to remove as much debris as possible. Next, proceed with the ancient practice of winnowing to separate the grain from the chaff. “Go outside on a windy day, or set up a fan, and pour the seeds back and forth from one container to another,” Myers says.

Canola is easy to grow in well-drained, fertile, silt-loam soils. The downsides: Deer love canola; you can expect volunteer plants (all the tiny seeds are difficult to keep contained); and non-GMO seed may be difficult to find in small quantities. Contact your local cooperative extension or state organic agriculture organization for help locating regionally adapted, non-GMO seed.

Walnut Oil: Worth the Work

English walnuts — the most widely cultivated type and the most easily cracked — produce a light, nutty oil best used uncooked; heating may turn flavors bitter. Black walnuts grow wild in eastern North America and yield savory oil, but they’re a hard nut to crack. They have spongy green husks that many people drive over to remove, and a tough, hard shell. The Master Nut Cracker can crack black walnuts.

English and black walnut trees that bear larger, easier-to-crack nuts are available through Willis Orchard Co. in Cartersville, Ga. English and black walnut trees are self-fertile; however, planting additional trees for cross-pollination will improve production. A small walnut seedling will typically take about seven years to mature and begin producing fruit. The grafted, or “improved,” cultivars offered through Willis Orchard Co. may begin producing after only three years.

An Added Attraction

After pressing oil from nuts or seeds, the high-protein meal that’s left can feed livestock or be used in recipes as appropriate.

In addition to crossing off another staple from your shopping list, learning how to make fats and oils at home will give you a new appreciation for these calorie-dense luxuries. You’ll enter a brand new world of healthful foods with fresh, delicious flavors.


Start the Oil Presses (With Video)

The Piteba oil press is great for small-scale, homemade cooking oil production. Built in the Netherlands, this manually operated and easy-to-use press can process 5 pounds of almonds or hazelnuts, 8 pounds of peanuts or sunflowers, or 11 pounds of hemp or safflower seeds in one hour.

The Piteba oil press, available through Bountiful Gardens, can screw directly onto a work surface, or onto a sturdy board that can, in turn, clamp onto a work surface. An auger presses the seeds or nuts through a narrow tube; the seeds or nuts are gently warmed with a small oil lamp to improve oil flow. Moisture content is important: If nuts or seeds are too moist, the oil won’t flow; if they’re too dry, the machinery will clog up. Seeds should also be as clean as possible to avoid wear on the metal parts of the press. Removing hulls from most nuts and seeds before pressing is not necessary. To watch a video about how to make cooking oil with a Piteba press, visit Use an Oil Press to Produce Homemade Cooking Oil (Video).

Other oil press options to consider include a variety of models by Kern Kraft and, for larger-scale production, the Komet line of seed presses produced by Monforts.


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