Farm Tips: Rendering Lard, Making Lye Soap, Making Cottage Cheese

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A big iron kettle could be a big help when making lye soap.

Here in northern Minnesota, you’ll often see an old farmstead (maybe still lacking electricity) with a couple head of livestock, a barrel stove in the living room, and a range in the kitchen. Wood (for fuel) is heaped high in boxes on the back porch… alongside the slop pail and the wash stand with its enamel basin and cold water. You can wear your boots indoors in these three-roomed rural homes–the furniture is there for comfort, not for decor–and you always feel welcome.

The residents of such a farm aren’t back-to-the-landers… some have chosen this way of life because unemployment is common around here in the winter months, and others have lived like this so long that they know no other way.

The average farm gal in our neighborhood has smelled new-mown hay, seen deer come into a clearing at dusk, and watched a fox hunt for mice just before dawn. She’s capable of making lye soap and also knows how to operate any type of farm equipment, can food, milk several head of cattle twice a day, help deliver and feed calves each spring, sew her own clothes, work side by side with her husband, and crank out home-baked goods and rib-sticking food daily. On top of that, she often holds down an outside job… and is still attractive, fun, and pleasant to be with.

Naturally, personalities vary as much in farm women as in any other walk of life, but the local girls do have one thing in common: They’re taught “how to do it” from the time they can talk, and are given their share of chores. Now more and more of these young people, after working ten years in the city, are quietly reviving that knowledge and returning to the land.

Among the local residents there are also many lonely elderly people whose own children have turned their backs on the farm. They gratefully welcome your company and are eager to tell you how they do things, what shortcuts to take, what problems to watch out for, and how to save money. Then they serve a wonderful meal and ask how soon you can come again.

Our farm neighbors, young and old, are experts in rural “making do” and have many hints to offer the newcomer. That slop pail on the back porch, for instance, isn’t there for soapy water. (If the term “slop pail” offends you, call it a hog bucket.) In the morning, after the cottage cheese has been made, the whey goes into the pail. When dinner is prepared the potato water is added too, along with the cooked peelings. Those leavings are then added to a milk substitute if your pig is young, or to mash if it’s mature.

Also, if you have a newly freshened cow (one that’s just given birth to a calf), the milk for the first few days will be more than the young one needs. The extra will often be “colored” and not usable for human consumption. (That’s the prevailing American view, anyway … for the other side of the question, see “Feedback on Colostrum.” — MOTHER EARTH NEWS) Unless you have several other young calves the fluid will be wasted, so it too goes to your pig.

Once you’ve raised and butchered that porker and learned how to cut up the meat, you’ll still be faced with the question, “What are we going to do with all that grease?”

Rendering lard is time consuming but not difficult. If you can’t do the job within a day or so of butchering, store the fat in a cool place or it’ll soon become rancid and unusable. When you’re ready to start, cut any dirt, hair, etc., from the white chunks. They’re not just part of a porker now . . . they’re about to become food.

Take a large enamel canner: They’re usually dark blue with white speckles and come in various sizes. Seven quarts is about standard and a good choice for melting lard. Fill the kettle with fat . . . no more than three-quarters full, since you’ll have to stir the contents now and then and a lower level eliminates the chance of splashing grease on the range and burning yourself or smoking everything up.

It’s best to render lard at a steady medium heat on top of the stove. Although melting the fat in the oven is also an acceptable method, boiling gives you a purer, whiter product for baking purposes. The grease will scorch easily at first, so I always throw in a cup of water (which evaporates by the end of the day).

When the fat has cooked until the pure white strips are shriveled up, let the lard cool for at least half an hour and then pour it into containers … coffee cans are best. Glass jars will work too, but are harder to empty later. Also, although everyone knows the trick of putting a metal spoon in a tumbler before adding hot coffee (so the glass won’t break), the lard must be allowed to cool longer – for safety’s sake – before it’s poured into the jars.

One year, when I was storing lard in some heavy plastic containers, I filled a gallon bucket with some freshly rendered fat which I was sure was “cool enough”. Just then I was distracted by my youngest crying in another room. When I returned the plastic had melted and I had hot lard on top of the cupboards, in the drawers, under the stove, everywhere. Forewarned is forearmed.

Use a tight-meshed strainer, if you have one, when you pour off your lard. Cheesecloth or an old lace curtain will work fine too. If you have none of those materials but have taken care to keep dirt and hair out of the product, that’s OK . . . go ahead and pour. Any cracklings that fall into the can will sink to the bottom and can be discarded after you’ve used up the container of shortening.

As you drain the fat, don’t worry about getting every last drop… you’re not done yet. Take the remaining cracklings and put them into a large pan (a turkey roaster for instance). Bake the mess an hour or so, depending on the size of your container, until the cracklings crumble easily in your hand and are dark brown in color. Then drain off the balance of the lard, which will be golden and perfectly suitable for frying. This final step allows you to salvage every drop.

Now all you have left to cope with is the cracklings. The driest ones make a good snack if you’ve done the job right, and you can use some in . . .

Crackling Cookies

 2 cups finely ground pork cracklings (just crush them in your hand)
2 cups brown sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup sour milk (if you have none, add 1/2 Tbs. vinegar to regular milk and let it stand for 20 minutes)
1 tsp. soda (add to the milk)
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. cinnamon
3 cups flour
1 tsp. ginger
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 /2 cup nuts if desired

Combine the dry ingredients in the order given, sift them and mix all the makings as they’re listed. Drop the batter by teaspoonfuls on a cookie sheet and bake the batch 12 minutes at 375°. The finished products resemble spice cookies.

The dog and the chickens will love the balance of the cracklings.

You’ll soon learn, when cooking with lard, to use slightly less of the shortening than of the less-rich commercial counterpart called for in most recipes. If a recipe specifies one cup of fat, for instance, make it a very scant cup. The amount to cut down is really too small to measure–perhaps a teaspoonful per cup–but you’ll have baking failures if you overlook the precaution . . . your cookies will be flat and hard instead of high and moist.

Now that your precious lard is rendered, cover it and store it in a very cool place–freeze it if you like–since the fat will turn rancid if kept in a warm room for any length of time. If that does happen, or if you have an excess of pork drippings, save the grease and make a batch of your own pure white soap.

Granny’s Homemade Soap

11 cups water (soft works best . . . save rainwater, melt snow, or use lake water)
9 cups grease, strained through cheesecloth or an old lace curtain to filter out particles of food, etc.
1/2 cup borax (Borateem will do)
5 Tbs. ammonia
1 tsp. oil of citronella (buy at the drugstore… optional, but gives a pleasant scent to the soap)
1 can Lewis lye

This recipe must be made outdoors, partly because of the fumes but mostly because the soap gives off a fine mist as you mix it. Use a large enamel container – your faithful seven-quart canner is perfect – and combine the ingredients in the order given. Add the lye last and stir with a wooden paddle or wide board only… the strongly alkaline solution will react with a metal spoon or rod.

The addition of the lye will cause the soap to boil. Avoid getting any on yourself or your clothing, and keep children away during the operation. Stir until the soap becomes thick and creamy and has more or less stopped bubbling, and pour it off into an enamel or wooden container (don’t use plastic). A discarded refrigerator vegetable tray is perfect.

Occasionally the soap will separate or become crumbly. This may mean that you haven’t stirred it continually or long enough, or that your water was hard. Its washing power will be just as good anyway.

As your soap hardens, cut it into squares. Then, when you need some for laundry purposes, shave a small amount into a pan and let it simmer until the pieces melt. You’ll then have a thick, soup-like cleaning agent. If you’re washing clothes the water should be at least warm or the product will harden as soon as it’s added. If you aren’t using your soap for laundry, it can be left in the pan or in a coffee can where it will stay somewhat soft for washing dishes.

If you don’t have access to fresh fat–or have problems accumulating nine cups of drippings–check with some of the very small restaurants near you. The larger eating places resell the grease they use in deep-frying. A smaller establishment, however, may not change its fat so often because it’s used less. Therefore the buyers don’t bother with the place and the residue gets thrown out.

One more hint I’d like to pass on is our recipe for cottage cheese made the lazy man’s way.

After running your milk through a bowl-shaped strainer (the standard dairy model has a cotton pad in addition to the metal part) to filter out animal hairs and dirt, put the liquid in a separator . . . either the electric type or the hand variety with two separate spouts and a crank. The cream thus skimmed off is either used for butter or sold once a week to the local dairy.

Fill a large kettle with the skim milk and set it out overnight. Once it’s curdled well, pour boiling water over the mass… the whey will rise and the curds will harden. Pour off the thin liquid into your hog bucket, break up the solid portion with a fork and mix in some pure cream. Don’t be alarmed if you add too much on your first try and the cheese becomes soupy. Within a few hours the excess will have been absorbed.

Season the mixture to taste: A teaspoon of sugar will bring out the flavor (this trick works equally well for cooking vegetables). We like to add a small amount of chopped onion to our curd. A farm we called home for four years had wild chives growing in the yard and they, too, were delicious in cottage cheese.

Store the food in a cool place, or put away just the curd and cover it with cream at serving time. Cottage cheese can be made by this recipe only in warm weather, by the way, or the milk will become stringy instead of curdling properly. Also, no form of skim milk sold over the counter will work. You must buy yours directly from a farmer, who’ll gladly sell you some since he usually feeds the fluid to the pigs. We used to pay 25¢ a gallon for such skim milk, back in the same year when I gave my neighbor’s wife a haircut once a month or so and received in trade one quart of heavy cream and a large amount of fresh cottage cheese. We each went away thinking we’d gotten the best of the bargain.

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