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Food + Cooking

Whole Lotta Lard

Published in Gourmet Live 02.29.12
Regina Schrambling tosses the can of shortening and goes whole hog for the other white grease

In all the uproar over Paula Deen cashing in on her diabetes with a drug deal, one ingredient has gotten unfairly trashed. Countless headline and opinion writers have been throwing around the word lard as if it were a bad thing. But kitchen cognoscenti these days understand what cooks and bakers did a century ago B.C. (Before Crisco): The other white fat is infinitely better than the product manufactured and marketed to replace it.

Not only does lard produce superior pie crusts, crispier fried chicken, and crunchier cookies than vegetable shortenings like Crisco, which was introduced by Procter & Gamble in 1911, but its fat is mostly monounsaturated, like olive oil’s. Sourced properly (ideally from a farmers’ market), or made from scratch, lard is the ultimate natural food.

And whatever the butter-guzzling Deen was peddling, lard did nothing to earn such scorn. If anything is to blame for the diabetes epidemic, it would not be an ingredient that fell so out of favor that NPR’s Planet Money recently devoted an episode to “Who killed lard?” Last time I looked, fast food and soda contained no lard.

As it turns out, that recent report of its death was premature. Lard has gone through decades of shame thanks to heavy marketing of the unnatural alternative and also to what I call nutrition nuttiness—in the fat-fearing ’90s even olive oil came under siege. But now this time-proven ingredient is on the ascendancy in a nose-to-tail world, where every part of the heritage pig has value. More and more restaurants and bakeries are not just using lard but bragging about it, and more home cooks are coming around, too. In April they will even have a fresh cookbook to try: Lard: The Lost Art of Cooking with Your Grandmother’s Secret Ingredient from the editors of Grit magazine, has recipes for everything from predictable pie to potato chips and brownies.

Steven Gedra, chef and co-owner of Bistro Europa in Buffalo, actually serves house-rendered lard instead of butter with his bread basket. He learned to make it in Italy from the Tuscan celebrity butcher Dario Cecchini, seasoning it with lemon zest, red wine vinegar, salt, and black pepper, and dubbing it “burro del Chianti” after Cecchini’s version. Gedra admits, “We kind of force it on our clientele,” but adds: “It’s like with kids—they think they don’t like it and then they try it. You gotta educate ’em.” Gedra’s wife and co-owner, Ellen, has an easier job using lard in her bread and pie doughs. Like more and more restaurants, theirs brings in a pig every other week and makes the most of it, even selling the roasted head.

Paul Fehribach, executive chef and co-owner of Big Jones in Chicago, says he’s built a following for his flaky biscuits and pies made with lard. At first he was only rendering lard in-house “to be true in our whole-animal commitment,” he says, but now he has to buy extra to meet the demand. Asked how his diners deal, he shrugs: “I’ve been very outspoken about both the culinary and health benefits of lard in particular and whole-hog cooking in general, so I think our core client base has been relatively enthusiastic.”

Gwin Grimes, owner of Artisan Baking Co. in Fort Worth, Texas, also uses lard that she renders herself, and many customers now actually ask to be certain they’re getting pies with lard-based crusts rather than those made with butter or vegan shortening.

Nathan Sears, chef du cuisine of Vie in Chicago—and another proponent of whole-animal cookery—renders lard to cook vegetables with instead of butter, which, he notes, has more saturated fat. And at Americano in Cleveland, co-owner Cole Davis says the deep-fryer is filled with lard because “we believe it is the healthiest and most durable” fat for frites.

Lard is still saddled with a debased name (although when you add one extra letter it sounds more seductive—lardo is everywhere thanks to the salumi craze). No wonder some chefs say it sells better as “pork fat.”

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.