Live long enough, and eventually you’ll witness repeating food and fashion trends. Personally, I didn’t think I’d see that ’70s look—bell-bottoms, platform shoes and polyester—ever again. Surprise!
In the food category, we’ve observed a return of the fondue craze and renewed interest in home canning and, believe it or not, lard.
I’m serious. Slowly but surely, lowly pig fat is rising to glory for three reasons: taste, culinary performance and fears about heart-unhealthy, cholesterol-raising trans fat in vegetable shortenings.
Trans fat is created when manufacturers add hydrogen to liquid vegetable oil, turning it into shortening and stick margarine. However, according to the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils, small amounts of trans fatty acids also occur naturally in foods such as milk, butter, cheese, beef and tallow as a result of “biohydrogenation” in cattle and other cloven-hoofed, cud-chewing animals—including bison, deer and antelope. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that as much as 20 percent of the trans fatty acids in the American diet are from ruminant sources.
From a food industry perspective, the addition of hydrogen improves shelf life and contributes desirable textural attributes such as flakiness to baked products. Manufacturers have been racing to reformulate tasty trans-fat-free versions ever since last January, when USDA regulations began requiring that food labels include grams of trans fat per serving. No one wants to be caught with a trace of the much-maligned ingredient.
From a heart-health standpoint, both trans and saturated fats tend to increase LDL, or low-density lipoproteins, also known as “bad” cholesterol. Hence the bad reputation.
Lard is rendered, clarified pork fat. The finest quality, known as “leaf lard,” comes from the fat around the pig’s kidneys. Most lard found in today’s supermarkets is a mix of lard and partially-hydrogenated lard, plus antioxidants to protect flavor and prevent rancidity. Don’t let the “hydrogenated” term scare you; the level of trans fat is negligible.
Lard also has less saturated fat and cholesterol than butter. And while it might not be in the same saintly category as olive oil, lard actually contains nearly twice as much heart-healthy monounsaturated fat as butter. Did I hear someone shout “hallelujah”?
“Praise the lard,” declared one headline renouncing lard’s sins. “Love in the fryer,” proclaimed another. No wonder. Everyone who’s anyone in the kitchen knows that lard is the secret to the most mouthwatering, crispy fried chicken, lightest biscuits and perfect pie crust. Helen Charley, author of the classic college text Food Science, simply wrote, “lard is considered a superior fat for making pastry.”
Charley based her claim on research published in a 1938 Iowa State Agricultural Experiment Station research bulletin entitled “The Physical and Chemical Characteristics of Lard and Other Fats in Relation to Their Culinary Value.”
I discovered the virtues of lard in my quest to repeat what my husband described as the most delicious pie crust he had ever tasted. Unfortunately, the recipe was lost with his deceased grandmother, and my mother-in-law had long since moved on to more modern Crisco. But I was a newlywed on a mission to please and delight my new husband. I don’t remember how many pies I made before finally succeeding, but we were young, and the calories didn’t count as much then.
Charley taught me about the many factors that contribute to a perfect pie crust. For example, pastry flour will make a more tender pastry than all-purpose flour because the latter contains more protein, which contributes to the development of gluten. We want to develop gluten in bread but not in pie crust.
Also critical is the amount of added liquid. Too little, and we’ll get a crumbly pastry; too much, and it’s tough. Two tablespoons of liquid per cup of flour is ideal. But Charley warned that what seems like a minute variation—just half a teaspoon more liquid per cup of flour—can make a noticeable difference in the tenderness of the pastry. Is it any wonder the perfect pie crust is so elusive and coveted?
Fat has two functions. It separates dough into layers, making it flaky, and it waterproofs flour, protecting it from the toughening effect of the liquid. According to Charley, between one-fourth and one-third cup of fat for each cup of flour is ideal. More than that, and the pastry becomes crumbly and greasy. Less, and the pastry turns tough.
Through trial and error, I confirmed Charley’s wisdom. Butter tasted good but yielded a somewhat tougher pastry; shortening made a flaky pastry but scored low on flavor. Oil crusts were either crumbly or greasy. Lard, on the other hand, was and remains perfect.
Now if we could just revisit historically smaller portion sizes. One serving of pie back in our nation’s thinner, bell-bottom days was just one-eighth of an 8- to 9-inch pie. Just enough to savor the heavenly properties that only lard can deliver.
Lard can be purchased locally from Rose and James Page of Peach Creek Farm. You can buy it, along with their many other sustainably-rasied Berkshire pork and farm products, including English pork pies and Texas kolaches, at the Austin Farmers’ Market or online at peachcreekfarm.us.
“Or make it yourself,” suggests Rose.
“The recipe I use for rendering lard is taken from The Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, the 1973 edition, purchased the year James and I were married.”
Here’s the definitive word on lard, directly from the 1973 edition of The Joy of Cooking:
"About Rendering Fats
Trying out solid fats such as chicken, duck, suet tallow and lard improves the keeping quality by removing all connective tissue, possible impurities and moisture. Dice the fat and heat it slowly in a heavy pan with a small quantity of water. You may speed up this process by pressing the fat with the back of a slotted spoon or a potato masher. When the fat is liquid and still fairly warm, strain it through cheesecloth and store it refrigerated. The browned connective tissues in the strainer—known as “cracklings”—may be kept for flavoring.”