I'm working hard to get into the head-to-tail movement. I have enormous respect for the folks who already do this. The fact is, however, that tripe and sweetbreads and brains still weird me out. Most of you are probably not surprised and, in fact, are nodding your heads.
What we can do as average home cooks who find lacy caul fat a little scary is make sure we make the most of what we do take home. Figure out how to use the cheaper or unusual cuts to make them palatable (ham hocks); figure out how many ways the resultant by-products useful (jus) and never just chuck a bunch of bones (stocks).
For me, the next step involves getting into fat.
Is fat flavor? Yes, absolutely. Do I make involuntary faces biting into a quarter-inch hunk of white jello? One hundred percent.
Don't get me wrong. I love me some bacon. Crisped-up fat edging a good pork chop is bliss. Without tallow, hamburgers would be awfully sad, and a slick of schmaltz over roasted vegetables is a thing of bliss.
Schmaltz is chicken fat.
Tallow is beef fat.
Lard is lovely ol' pork fat.
I encourage you today to take stock of the excess fats in your kitchen. They're easy to store, keep for a good long while, lend great flavors to your sear or sautee and have a medium-high smoke point. That is to say, they'll burn long after butter, but you don't want to use them in a stir-fry.
Tallow skimmed off the top of cooled beef stock.
So where are the fats in your kitchen commonly found?
Real heritage pork chops, not the kind you find on sale for a dollar at your local chain grocery, have a good round of fat on them. Even I, who like a little fat, do not want the whole quarter inch from those chops. Cut it off and save it--what to do is coming.
Chicken fat off a roast can be saved. Same with beef. You may already leave the fat on the top of a bowl of homemade stock to seal it. When you break it, do you just chuck the creamy layer on top? You could skim that and hold on to it as well. Fats from beef or chicken stocks are especially good used as the lubrication to soften your soup veggies in--you're adding a layer of flavor you're already trying to highlight in a chicken noodle or beef and barley. I always boil my smoked ham hock before tearing it up for some Split Pea and Ham soup--the fat off the top of that cooled liquid has all the smokey, salty, piggy flavor of the original meat itself. Why would you use vegetable oil when you can hug your diced onions with smoked hock taste?
Alright, you've sold me. Now what do I do with those hunks of fat you told me to cut off my meat?
Well, friend, it's time to render fat. This method can be used with any fats you have around but in my household, generally speaking pork is the product I buy with any "real" amount of excess fat on it that I'll remove before even cooking.
Note: With this scrap method, you will not have lard you can use to make pastry unless you like meat-flavored pastries. Leaf lard is required from a pig to make snowy-white, non-meaty rendered lard and that's not what you'll be cutting off your porkchops.
You can do this with any amount of fat you like--photos here show the fat off of two well-fed pork chops. Just two! And I had enough resulting lard to slick a number of pans.
Take the fat you've removed from the chops and cut into small (a large dice is optimal for me) pieces. Try to keep the pieces as uniform as possible; this will help an even rendering process. The fat does not need to be completely meat-free; you don't have to scrape it clean.
Place fat in a small pot and cover with at least an inch of water. This doesn't need to be precise but it should be more generous than not. Bring water to a gentle simmer. Let the pot simmer, uncovered, for a while.
"A while" depends on the quantity of fat you're rendering. Check it every twenty minutes or so to ensure it's not actually boiling--the water is there to insulate the fat with an even cooking temperature and render down the solids into smearable liquids. The water eventually steams off and you're left with just the rendered lard.
You can tell the fat is rendered when it colors. It will start to shrink and become golden just like fat you fry. Little bits may float off and hang out at the surface. Stir your pot once in a while to ensure the pieces aren't sticking to the bottom.
When the fat is totally shrunk and golden, you've rendered as much as you can out of it. Place a cheesecloth over a sieve to ensure you catch even those little floating brown bits. These would burn in further cooking and shouldn't be a part of your final lard. Remember that fat can get hotter than boiling water--be very careful at this stage. Pour the fat through the sieve into a heat-safe bowl. Give the solids enough time to be cool enough to touch. Bundle the cheesecloth with the rendered hunks inside and give it a twist over your bowl to get all your liquids out.
Cover with plastic wrap pressing directly down on the lard and move to the fridge.
If you're worried you didn't evaporate all the water, in a few hours, you'll find out. The water will rise to the top of the fat and form beads on the surface. Pour this off and put the plastic wrap back down. This will have no ill effects.
Your lard can be kept in the fridge for a month or two or freeze for more extended life.
Or don't wait--go fry some potatoes.
Want to read up more on fat? Check out the highly-educational Fat by Jennifer McLagan or this love-song, Schmaltz by the omnipresent Michael Ruhlman.