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What’s Cooking – Dairy and Fats

milking cowJune 18, 2019

In 2019, we tend to be very particular about how much fat and oil is in our daily diet. Some fat is needed for our bodies to provide energy reserves, protect our cells and help us absorb certain nutrients. Nutritionists regularly argue the values of unsaturated fats, the benefits of vegetable oils versus animal fats and the dangers of trans-fats and hydrogenated oils. Chefs regularly argue the benefits of some fat for flavor in meat and the tastiness of occasionally deep frying food. Midwestern farming families in the past weren’t always able to be quite so picky. Fat and oils provided needed calories and nutrition. These fats came from the resources at hand, most often in the form of animal fats. Iowa’s farmers also knew what tasted good to them, in baking, frying, and desserts. Fats like bison and deer tallow for the Ioway culture, lard, butter, and even cream for pioneers and late 19th century farmers, were all every day ingredients over the course of Iowa’s history. This week our historic kitchens explore the ways fats were used in the past as preservation tools, frying oils, and recipe ingredients. Visit the museum this week for a look at some of the ways fats and frying made it into the farm diet. On Monday, the Pioneer farm made lard based pie crust. Wednesday, the Tangen House staff will try their hand at Caramel Ice Cream! The Ioway farm staff will make Pemmican on Thursday and the pioneers will churn butter on Saturday. Come and enjoy the demonstration and check the LHF blog for recipes to try at home!

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“What’s Cooking” Program Presenting Sponsor – Hy-Vee


The Ioway culture used the fat rendered from animals such as deer and bison to make a high energy food called Pemmican. Dried meat and dried berries would be mixed with the fat. The mixture was then made into balls about the size of a fist or smaller. Pemmican would be up to 80% fat. This provided a portable, nutrient dense food which could be eaten on the move by hunting or traveling parties or during winter when other foods were out of season. Fat will eventually go rancid, but if stored in a cool place it can be used as a preservation tool. The dried meat and berries were submerged in fat which blocked out air– keeping micro-organisms from easily getting in.

lardIn 1850, Iowa’s settlers used beef tallow, hog lard, and dairy fats on their farms. Lard was a common fat for the pioneer. Hogs were butchered in cool weather. The meat could be smoked or cured, and the fat rendered for lard. Lard was used for frying, as well as being the primary fat in recipes such as pie crust. Meat could be potted in lard—in other words, meats were submerged in a crock of lard for food preservation. The lard, just like the fat in Pemmican, prevented micro-organisms in the air from reaching the meat. The importance of hogs on a pioneer Iowa farmstead surpasses that of all the other livestock in sheer numbers. In 1850, there were 325,000 hogs in the state with a human population of 190,000 people. Hogs continued to be an important source of food for Iowa farmers into the 20th century.

Lard hogs, breeds raised for higher amounts of fat, were common. In 1900, farmers raised these types of hogs for their own consumption, but also for sale to metropolitan markets, like Chicago. After harvesting a hog, the farm family needed to process the animal’s fat. This is called rendering. Different parts of the animal produced differing qualities of lard. Leaf lard, found around the loin and kidneys, was especially prized for cooking and baking.

fatty meat“Hog’s Lard.–The inside fat or leaf of a pig should be beaten with a lard-beater, or rolling-pin; then put it into a jar or earthen pot, in a large kettle of boiling water, till it is melted; add a little salt and a little rosemary–the last may be left out if not preferred. When melted, pour it into jars or bladders, nicely cleaned. The bits of skins that are left are called crittens, and chopped up with apples or currants to make fritters, or a pie. Lard is frequently melted in a brass kettle over a slow fire. It is better to surround it with water —The Complete Cook, 1864.”

Rich dairy fats also found their way into farmers’ diets by the mid-1800s. Being able to keep a dairy cow was an early goal for the pioneer farmer. Ephraim Fairchild wrote to family back east in 1857, “I have got a cow now …. and now we have got butter to eat of our own manufacturing and it appears a little more like living.” With no refrigeration, whole milk spoiled quickly and was not something pioneers drank. For preservation, milk was processed into butter or cheese. In 1900, the Polk County, Iowa Farm Census records report, on average, farmers produced about 55 pounds of butter per cow each year. By the end of the 19th century, Iowa cities boasted ice houses and creameries, allowing Iowa town folks to enjoy cold cream dishes like Ice Cream. In 1869, Des Moines listed three Ice Cream vendors and one Ice delivery company. By 1879, there were eight ice cream vendors! Three dealers in butter and eggs were also listed.

cream on top of milk

To make butter, whole milk was allowed to sit in a cool place overnight until cream formed on top. The cream was skimmed off and placed in a churn for butter making. Churns agitated the cream, allowing the fat molecules to stick together, forming butter. Two quarts of room temperature cream can take about 30 minutes to churn.

Make your own butter! Place a pint of heavy whipping cream in the bowl of your stand mixer and whip. The cream will turn into whip cream. Continue mixing– the whip cream will “break”, separating into butter milk and tiny particles of butter fat. The fat particles will stick together into larger lumps. For a non-electric method, place the whipping cream in a tightly lidded jar and shake or roll the jar back and forth until the butter forms. Then, strain off the butter milk. Wash the butter lump with cold water. Pour off any milky liquid. Add salt to taste and then refrigerate.

• 1 cup of dried meat jerky (the Ioway used bison jerky which is available online today!)
• 1 cup of dried berries (raisins, cranberries)
• 1 cup of melted animal fat (such as lard)
Mix the meat jerky and dried berries together with melted fat in a bowl and spread into a casserole dish or pie plate. Allow the fat to cool and harden. You can then shape the fat mixture into balls with a scoop or cut it into squares. In 1700, the Ioway might store their pemmican in pouches made of hides. YOU should store your pemmican in an air-tight container, preferably in the fridge or freezer.


Read more posts on the LHF Blog


1700 Ioway Farm   1850s    1900 Farm   From Field to Table   In the Kitchen   Recipes  What’s Cooking

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