I'll admit it. The first time I came across the instruction "render the bacon" in a culinary school recipe, I panicked a smidge. I knew the gist of rendering: You cook down the bacon until its gummy white fat melts into grease. But I had no idea which pan I should pull out from the racks full of them, how long this process should take, or what to look for along the way.
Turns out, of course, there's not much to be intimidated about. But there are a few good things to know that can (pun intended) save your bacon.
Starting with either pre-sliced strips or slab bacon is fine. I prefer slab, mainly because the crispy little cracklings they leave behind (nom) are easier to fish out of the pan once the rendering is done. Either way, you're best off cutting the bacon into small (one-inch or tinier) pieces to expose as much surface area to the pan as possible. This allows the fat to melt more quickly, preventing burning on one area before the other fatty areas have had a chance to melt.
Toss the pieces into a heavy bottomed pot or saute pan that's large enough to fit them in a single layer without leaving much empty space. You shouldn't need any excess fat—though it takes a while before enough bacon fat releases to coat the pan—but if you're nervous about your bacon burning or your pan being too large, add a small amount of canola or vegetable oil for lubrication.
Keep the heat on low or medium at most, lowering it if the fat starts popping or the pieces start browning too quickly. Give them a few sizzling minutes undisturbed in the pan, then be sure to stir (or flip if you've kept your bacon in strips) to give all of the white, fatty sides time to brown.
When most of the fat has melted away, and what meat is left behind is crispy and browned, use a slotted spoon to remove the meaty bits and place them on a rack or some paper towels to absorb remaining grease. (If your goal is to reserve the highest fat yield possible, place the bits in a metal sieve and squeeze any remaining grease out of them with the back of a spoon instead.) You may want to run the fat itself through a fine sieve to rid it of any leftover brown bits.
Once the fat is rendered and skimmed, the cooking possibilities are endless. On the spot, pour a little into a skillet for egg or omelet-making, crisping potatoes, or sautéing greens, cabbages or onions.
Or, if you've planned ahead, perhaps you'll try a more ambitious concoction, like vinaigrette for potato salads or lettuces, a bacon fat Bolognese, or bacon fat mayo. The lard is great for greasing baking pans, too.
To store the fat for later, go old-school and use a cleaned coffee canister, or just pour into a glass jar after the fat has cooled a bit. It should keep for about a month in the refrigerator.
About the author: "Sue Veed" is an editor at a Manhattan-based food magazine and a current culinary student who's trying to learn it all so she can cook it all. She'll take us along for the ride as she makes the journey from home cook to professional. Among things she may never master: looking natural in a chef's hat, and acting demure whenever a pork product hits the table.