Storing food in fat is virtually unheard of these days but this method of food preservation is actually the origin of the of the word larder. We tend to think of a larder in the same context as a pantry, but historically they are in fact two distinctly different food storage spaces.
The larder was a cool room or cellar where meat was stored. Often this meat was submerged in lard in large crocks or barrels. The chunks of meat or whole sausages were partially cooked and then placed in the container and covered with warm rendered lard. This would be repeated until the whole container was full of meat surrounded and separated by the lard. It would then be covered and stored in the larder until needed. This space was also often used for storing uncooked meat, cheeses, hanging game, such as rabbit, duck or pheasants and also storing vegetable or fruit which needed higher humidity levels. To achieve higher humidity in the larder they were often in earth floored or earth walled cellars.
The Pātaka was the Māori version of the larder, except it was above ground on stilts to protect the stored foods from rats. These elevated huts use the air flow through gaps in the walls and had large overhanging eaves to keep food cooler and dry. Pātaka often held seeds, dried foods and meat stored in fat in gourds and pōhā (Southern bull kelp bags). This method was often used for Mutton birds (tītī) packing them into the pōhā and covering with their own fat, though these days salt curing is more common.
Which leads us back, through this little history lesson, to meat stored in fat as a food preservation method. We were fortunate to spend an hour or so chatting with a local kaumātua. He told us of his father repurposing wooden tea chests to make meat storage containers. His mother would partially cook the meat and put it in the boxes (probably on a bed of fat) then rendered fat would be poured over the meat. The fat would seal any small gaps and completely surround the meat, stopping all air and bacteria from contact with the meat. These boxes would then be covered and stored in a cool outhouse until needed.
This method of meat storage many would find shocking in today’s germophobic and fatphobic culture. But it is in fact a very ancient practice, many cultures store meat in this manner. An example being ‘Confit’ a French method of salt cured meat such as duck, goose, pork etc. Which is poached it in its own fat, then stored covered in that same fat. Stored in a cool dry place this meat will be good for at least six months.
Salting and/or cooking the meat first is necessary to kill any existing bacteria, then immersing it completely in hot fat to seal the meat from any further exposure. A simple method is to use hot sterilised jars and place the hot meat in surrounding it with hot rendered fat as you go. Many homesteaders use this method for storing meat patties. A small amount of fat would be poured into the base of the jar, a cooked meat patty is placed on the fat layer and more fat poured to cover it. This would be repeated until the jar was full to within an inch from its rim and topped off with a final layer of fat. A sterilised lid would be put on and the jar left to cool before being moved into cool storage place like a traditional larder or cellar.
Rillettes is another well-known recipe where pork is seasoned and simmered in its own fat until it is falling apart. The pork is then shredded and packed into sterilised jars with the rendered lard, making sure the meat is fully covered to seal it. These practices were best done in the cooler months, usually autumn processing for winter and spring eating. The fat needs to remain in a solid state to preserve the food, high temperatures can melt the fat which could result in spoilage. However, this method can apply to simply storing your cooking or soap making fat for the year. We render all excess fat and store it in sterilized jars in the pantry, the jars seal and are perfectly fine as we open them to use over the following months.
Larding is also a traditional method for aging cheddar cheeses, called ‘clothbinding’ the cheeses were wrapped in coarsely woven cheesecloth and then smeared with lard. The lard impedes air’s access to the surface of the cheese, which limits the extent of fungal growth while aging and preserves the cheese for longer periods. Once completely covered the cheese is stored in a cool, humid environment, with occasional flipping and wiping of the outside with a dry cloth to further limit fungal growth.
As rendered fat is used in all these preservation methods it’s important to know how rendering is done. There are different names for the fat depending on the animal, lard is from pigs, tallow or dripping is from beef and lamb. You can also render the fat of poultry and render butter into ghee.
- Chop the fresh or frozen fat into small pieces or mince batches of frozen fat in a food processor or mincer. You can trim any meat off the fat, but don’t worry too much.
- Heat at a very low temperature, about 100 °C, you don’t want to burn the fat, but you do want any water to evaporate. A slow cooker, roasting dish in the oven or a heavy bottomed pot on the stove will work.
- Cook until you have liquid fat with small browned solid fat lumps. This can take a few hours.
- Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little before filtering through a cloth lined metal funnel directly into hot steralised jars. (Do not use plastic as the heat from the fat can melt it) if you don’t have a metal funnel you can strain through a cloth lined sieve into a pyrex jug and then pour into the jars. Metal lids can be put on hot or plastic lids once the jar cools. The fat with be golden coloured while hot but will turn creamy white as it cools. (If you wish to store the fat in plastic it is best let it cool somewhat before pouring it into the container)
- We store our jarred fat at room temperature or in a cool cupboard as it is shelf stable if rendered properly. Once opened the jar is usually put in the fridge, you can also store in the freezer if you want.
For more food storage ideas check out our other articles…