Whole Lotta Lard

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But when I jokingly Tweeted “Lard: What is it good for?” the other day, the responses were surprisingly nearly all positive, with only one crack about grandparents cooking with it and living to tell the tale. Whoever is monitoring D’Artagnan’s account picked up on the music reference and responded: “Absolutely everything.” From food and nonfood followers came such raves as this one from Los Angeles restaurant critic Jonathan Gold: “Biscuits, pie crusts, tamales, French fries, confit, goulash, bizcochos, and dim sum.” Lori Ferro, of Cafe Aroma in Idyllwild, California, put it succinctly: “Lard beats Crisco any day, no matter what ‘The Help’ says,” alluding to a controversial scene in the movie in which one of the characters rhapsodizes about shortening for more than just frying chicken.

There’s lard and then there’s lard, though. What’s sold in supermarkets, often labeled with the Spanish name, manteca, is almost as bad as shortening was before the trans fats were eliminated, because it’s been processed in the same way—hydrogenated so that it will stay solid at room temperature and need no refrigeration. (Note: This is the kind used in Pillsbury roll-and-fill pie crusts.) The real deal can be found mostly at farmers’ markets or some butcher shops, especially by special order. As is the case with restaurants, butchers who specialize in whole animals are likely to have lard or at least fat to render for it.

Most farmers just sell the fat, although some have it rendered in a container ready to pop open and bake with, like Flying Pigs Farm does for its stall at New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket. Local Harvest, a Web site devoted to connecting shoppers with organic foods close to their homes, has an exceptional list of lard sources all over the country. There’s also a whole support group called Lard Lovers online for devotees.

Leaf lard, from the fat around the pig’s kidneys, is the best, especially for baking. As Rich Tilyou, of T-Meadow Farm, near Buffalo, points out, it’s very dense, with smaller crystals; it’s creamy and uniform and snow-white. But lard can also be rendered from fatback, which is much easier to find. With either, you cut the fat in small bits and cook it slowly, with or without a little water, in the oven or on the stovetop. Jennifer McLagan, whose cookbook Fat is a superb source of recipes and basic information, has an excellent tutorial on her blog.

Lard usually has no perceptible flavor, which makes it perfect for baking, but if it’s allowed to brown during rendering it will acquire a decidedly porky taste—just what you want in refried beans or with root vegetable. Make it yourself and you can tailor it to the purpose.

Before Crisco, every cook would have known how to do this. It says it all that one of my brothers-in-law emailed me recently with a question about an 1870s recipe for Georgia corn bread that called for half a cup of “grease.”

“The only grease I have in the house is in the garage and used for my lawn mower’s ball bearings. What is this grease and/or can I use butter or margarine?”

And that may be the one word less savory than lard.

Regina Schrambling is a longtime food writer in New York City best known for her acerbic Web site, Gastropoda.com. She is a former deputy editor of the New York Times Dining section who now writes for outlets ranging from Plate to Endless Vacation, and also blogs at Epicurious. She has previously written for Gourmet Live about Homeboy Industries, Dinner with Dr. Bugs and eating in Istanbul.

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