What Is Lard and How Do You Use It?
You probably don't associate lard with the modern-day kitchen. For many of us, it seems like a relic of kitchens past, and an unhealthy one at that. But it turns out we've been a little hard on lard, and more and more cooks are beginning to turn to it over vegetable shortening or butter. It's time to get acquainted with lard and its many uses.
What Is Lard Made Of?
Lard is made from 100 percent animal fat (usually pork) that has been separated from the meat. Most lard is made through a process called rendering, whereby the fatty parts of the pig (such as the belly, butt, and shoulder) are cooked slowly until the fat is melted. This fat is then separated from the meat. Once chilled, lard will solidify into a smooth, opaque substance that may or may not have a lingering pork taste, depending on how it's processed.
Lard vs. Butter vs. Shortening
So how does lard stack up against other cooking fats? Up until the early 20th century, lard reigned supreme. But once vegetable shortening was invented, it quickly dethroned lard as the cooking fat of choice.
Vegetable shortening is made from, you guessed it, vegetable oils, such as soybean, cottonseed, or palm oils. To this day, shortening remains the most popular option as its shelf-stable and affordable, but lard and shortening can be used for the same purposes, such as greasing pans or achieving light and flaky pie crusts.
Butter on the other hand is a cooking fat made from cream that has been churned until it reaches a solid state. It's often the baker's fat of choice, though some bakers are turning to lard because of its lower melting point which allows more steam to be released during cooking, resulting in a lighter and flakier pastry.
Types of Lard
All lard comes from pig fat, but the type of lard is dependent on what part of the pig that fat is from, and how it is extracted. That is to say, not all lard is created equal.
That's right, not all lard is rendered. Unrendered lard is simply pig fat that has been trimmed from the meat. It is not melted (rendered) or filtered. For this reason, it has a lingering pork taste and is not the best choice for baking, or any other dish you don't want tasting like pork.
Rendered lard is more popular, as it doesn't have such a strong, lingering pork flavor like its unrendered counterpart. It comes from 100 percent pork fat that is melted, filtered, and then chilled.
Processed lard is the most popular, because it doesn't have any lingering pork flavor. It is made by melting, filtering, and clarifying pork fat. Clarification refers to the process of bleaching and hydrogenating, which tones down the pork flavor and keeps the lard solid at room temperature.
Leaf lard is considered the most luxurious of all lard types. What sets it apart? It comes from the leaf-shaped fat around the kidneys and the abdomen. It's softer, creamier, and smoother than all other types of lard, which is why it's considered the best choice for baking. That, and the fact that it's naturally free of pork flavor.
Is Lard Bad For You?
Ever since the invention of vegetable shortening in the early 20th century, lard has been largely villainized in the health-food world. That is, until recently.
It wasn't long ago that lard was used in almost every American kitchen. By the late 20th century however, lard was considered the unhealthy cooking fat due to its high concentration of saturated fatty acids and cholesterol. McDonald's famously used beef-based lard to cook its fries up until 1990, years after Phil Sokolof, a man who had a heart attack in 1966, started lobbying against cholesterol and fat in fast food. Beginning in 1990, the chain started using vegetable oil instead.
However, more and more cooks are beginning to turn to lard over vegetable shortening and/or butter, as it has less trans fat than shortening and less saturated fat than butter. But at the end of the day, it is a cooking fat, and like any cooking fat, should be used in moderation.
Where to Buy Lard
Shelf-stable (processed) lard is commonly found in grocery stores, particularly in the international or Hispanic aisle, as it is more commonly used in these cuisines. Popular producers include Armour Lard or Rendering's for leaf lard. For fresh, rendered lard, you'll want to go to your local butcher. Here you'll have the option to purchase rendered lard or fat that can be rendered at home.
How to Make Lard
Rendering your own lard is actually quite easy, it just takes patience.
Here's What You'll Need:
- Cold leaf lard or back fat
- ¼ cup water
- A slow cooker or a large pot
- Storage container
- Start out by cutting your leaf lard or back fat into small pieces.
- Add ¼ cup water to the bottom of the slow cooker or large pot. Add the fat.
- Set the slow cooker to low or heat the pot over the stove on low heat.
- Let it cook for about 1 ½ to 2 hours, checking on it throughout to make sure the fat does not burn. Once the fat starts to melt, and the cracklings (the crisp, leftover pork rind) start to settle to the bottom, it's ready.
- Strain the fat to remove the cracklings. Then strain it three additional times through a cheesecloth to remove any sediment.
- Place the melted lard in a glass jar or any storage container. Let it sit at room temperature until firm. Store in the fridge for six months to a year.
When to Use Lard
Like butter or shortening, lard is a cooking fat that can be used for baking, sauteing, grilling, or frying. For any recipe that you don't want to have a lingering pork flavor, be sure to use rendered leaf lard or processed lard.
Use lard in a cast-iron skillet to deep-fry chicken or fries. Substitute it for butter or go half-and-half to create flaky pie crusts and biscuits. You can also slather it on a chicken towards the end of cooking to make a delectable, crispy skin.
As you'd probably expect, shortening is going to be the best substitute for lard, because it's also made from 100 percent fat. Use a 1:1 ratio when substituting with shortening.
Butter has the second highest fat content, behind lard and shortening. For every ½ cup of lard, substitute ½ cups plus 2 tablespoons butter. You can also substitute 1 cup olive oil for every 1 cup of lard.
Related: How to Soften Butter 5 Ways