The noble pig, supplier of some of humankind’s most delicious foods, bacon, pork loin, barbecued ribs, ham, sausages, etc. Oh and yes, that all important unguent, lard.
Some of the best pie crust I’ve ever had is made with lard. No it doesn’t taste piggy, not if you use the right lard, rendered properly. Have you ever had bitter greens like arugula, wilted in pork dripping, or bacon fat? It really turns a salad into a main dish, especially if you add some pancetta and a poached egg on top. On a recent trip to Budapest, instead of butter for my bread, I was served a mound of fluffy lard rendered from one of Hungary’s famed Mangalitsa pigs and flavored with paprika. It was heavenly.
I know a lot of people are worried about their health, but lard is really no worse for you than butter. In fact, it actually contains less saturated fat than butter. Butter is approximately 50% saturated fat, 30% monounsaturated fat, and 4% polyunsaturated fat. Lard consists of 39% saturated fat, 45% monounsaturated fat and 11% polyunsaturated fat. And it turns out that saturated fat may not even be as bad for us as we have been led to believe. A recent meta-analysis of over 300,000 subjects published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD [Coronary Heart Disease] or CVD [Cardio Vascular Disease].”
But doesn’t fat make you fat? Well, actually, no. Eating more calories than you expend is what makes a person gain weight. Fat and the flavor that it brings to food, are what make you feel satiated. If we take the fat out of our food, we keep eating past the point where we are actually full, in search of satisfaction that will never come. The explosion of “no-fat” and “low-fat” processed foods, along with meat bearing animals that have been bred leaner and leaner over the past 30 years have paradoxically contributed to the current obesity epidemic.
Take that wilted arugula salad I mentioned above, if you make it with a bottled “no-fat” dressing and bacon bits (which, by the way, are usually made of soy, not bacon), you’ll be hungry half and hour later and digging into the emergency Oreos stash in your desk drawer. If you make it with pork fat and pancetta, you’ll hardly be able to eat too much of it, especially if you make a smaller portion to begin with and concentrate on eating slowly and savoring the luscious flavor. On this point I agree with Jennifer McLagan, author of Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes. Eat fat, lose weight.
If you’d like to try using some lard at home, start with something simple, like wilted greens with a vinaigrette made with bacon fat instead of olive oil. Or take some lard and melt it with salt and a couple of sprigs of a fresh green herb like thyme or rosemary. Let it cook over low heat for about 15 minutes, then pluck out the herb stalks, let the lard cool to room temperature, and chill it in the fridge. At serving time, bring it to room temperature, beat it a bit with a wooden spoon to make it fluffy and serve it as a spread for bread with some additional chopped fresh herbs to sprinkle on top. Any where you use olive oil, vegetable oil, or butter, you can try lard instead.
I recommend buying lard from a trusted source at a farmers’ market or a good butcher. It may be already rendered, or you can easily do it yourself at home (see below). Free range, sustainably raised pigs make better tasting fat, so ask about where and how the pig was raised. Heritage breeds such as Tamworth or Gloucestershire Old Spot, have more and better fat, than modern ones which have been bred to be “the other white meat.” Stay away from the lard sold in supermarkets. It has been industrially processed using bleaching and deodorizing chemicals and it is usually hydrogenated to make it shelf stable which really does make it bad for you.
There are several kinds pork fat, each being good for different types of cooking. Back Fat or Fatback comes from the back, shoulder and rump of the pig. It is the fat just under the skin and it is often sold with the skin still attached (great for making Chicharrón). If you remove the skin and render the fat, the resulting lard is very good for sautéeing and frying.
Leaf lard is the fat from around the pig’s kidneys. This is the purest and most neutral tasting lard and it’s special crystalline structure is what makes your pie crust the best in the world. You can also use it for frying.
To Render Lard
Adapted from Jennifer McLagan
Leaf Lard or Fatback, very cold or partially frozen
Preheat oven to 250F
If rendering fatback remove the skin, if using leaf lard pull away any papery membranes. Cut the fat into 1-inch pieces. Put it in a dutch oven or ovenproof casserole. Add 1/3 cup of water for each pound of fat you have. This prevents the fat from burning during the rendering process.
Put the pan in the oven, uncovered. Check on its progress and stir it twice during the first 45 minutes, then check and stir once per hour. Render the fat until it starts to color. This will take 4-8 hours depending on the amount of fat you start with. As soon as you see any pieces with color, remove the fat from the oven and strain it through a fine mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth. Any pieces that remain in the strainer can be returned to the pan to render further if you wish.
Let the rendered lard cool completely before covering it and storing in the refrigerator where it will keep for about 2 months. If frozen it will keep for a year.