Thursday, January 1, 2009


It’s the New Year, 2009, and while we’re all signing up for gym memberships and contemplating our diet and weight loss goals, I’m thinking about a subject that considered out-of-date, bad for our health, and prohibited by dietary canons in some religions. Yes, folks, I’m thinking about lard, a pork product that, despite its reputation as being an unhealthy fat, has applications in today’s cooking that should not be ignored. If you’ve never used lard in pastry baking, you are missing the boat. It is also used as a spread, a preservative, and a cooking medium as well as a shortener.

Lard is rendered pig fat. The pig has various fat deposits within its carcass. The most prized is the leaf lard, which is located within the body cavity surrounding the kidneys. Also known as flare, this fat, when properly rendered, produces the finest lard as it is both white in color and has very little pork flavor, making it ideal to use in pastry baking as it produces flaky, moist pie crusts. I also use this fat when I make blood sausages as it renders almost completely, leaving very little cracklings.

The fat back is found between the pig’s skin and the flesh along the loin. It is a hard fat producing good quality lard. Fat back is cured in Italy into lardo, which is consumed in small quantities as an appetizer. I purchased a small amount of lardo di Colonnata the last time we were in Tuscany and found it absolutely delicious. Fat back is also the preferred fat for inclusion is sausages, and it is used in France to “lard” meats, where long strips of fat are inserted into a lean roast with a special larding needle, keeping the roast moist inside while cooking. Salt pork is produced from pork bellies, which are also the source for bacon.

Caul fat, the thin membrane of connective tissue with deposits of fat throughout is the peritoneum of the pig, covering the organs of the abdominal cavity. This soft fat, used to wrap little sausages and other items, which, when cooked, virtually disappears, is difficult to find unless you know someone who raises their own pigs.

Commercially produced lard is a combination of the leaf lard and fat back, usually rendered either by the wet rendering method, or the dry rendering method. The best lard is produced by wet rendering, where the fat is exposed to hot water and steam. As the fat is insoluble in water it is skimmed off or separated in a centrifuge. Thereafter it is treated with bleaching and deodorizing agents, hydrogenated (which produces trans fats), and emulsifiers and antioxidants are added to make it shelf stable. Due to all this industrial manipulation and adulteration of supermarket lard, I recommend seeking artisan produced lard from a local farmer, or rendering your own.

Lard, like all fats, is composed of large crystals, which make it difficult to cream, but effective as shortening in pastry baking, which is its primary use in this country. Many chefs use a combination of lard and butter in making pastries to benefit from the flakiness produced by the lard with the taste of butter.

In Europe, wet rendered lard is used for deep-frying, and the real English “fish and chips” is made using lard. It has a relatively high smoke point, making it desirable for this application. Dry rendered lard, with is brown color and more porky in flavor is still used as a spread on bread, where it is sometimes mixed with paprika, as in Spain.

If you do come across some local pig fat, chop it up into smaller pieces and place it in a saucepan with a cup of water. Bring to the boil and cook slowly for the fat to render and the water to boil off. Skim out any cracklings and strain the liquid fat into a container, allow to cool and keep covered in the refrigerator.

One note, lard, by weight, has less saturated fat and less cholesterol than butter, and non-hydrogenated lard, has no trans fat, so while artisan produced lard is better for you than the commercial product, it should be used in moderation, just like everything else.

Pie Crust with Butter & Lard

yield: Makes 2 pie crusts (enough dough for 1 double-crust pie, 1 lattice-topped pie, or 2 single-crust pies)

2 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 cup chilled lard, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
5 tablespoons (or more) ice water

Blend flour, sugar, and salt in processor. Add butter and lard; using on/off turns, blend until mixture resembles coarse meal. Transfer mixture to medium bowl. Add 5 tablespoons ice water and mix with fork until dough begins to clump together, adding more water by teaspoonfuls if dry. Gather dough together. Divide dough in half; flatten each half into disk. Wrap each disk in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour.

DO AHEAD Can be made 3 days ahead. Keep refrigerated. If necessary, soften slightly at room temperature before rolling out.

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