Most of us long for the authenticity of old-fashioned recipes, in which farm-fresh ingredients contribute honest flavors. Free-range eggs, with their sunny, orange yolks; freshly churned butter sparkling with the last drops of its briny whey: This is the way food ought to taste.
Thoughtful shoppers can resurrect some of those flavors by shopping carefully at farmstands and farmers markets. But one great heritage ingredient missing from most tables today is lard. Used in kitchens for centuries, lard (rendered from pork fat) has a unique mix of different types of fats that give it wonderful qualities, especially for baking and frying. If you’ve never eaten foods cooked with lard, you’re in for a lovely surprise when you do.
Like most animal fats, lard is higher in saturated fat than most vegetable oils. Lard’s reputation was tarnished decades ago when manufacturers persuaded us that Crisco and Parkay, which are vegetable oils that are “hydrogenated” using chemical processes to change the oils to solids, were better choices than traditional animal fats. Then, in the ’90s, when the medical establishment began to hammer on saturated fats as the culprits in heart disease, lard’s shunning was complete.
But maybe it’s time to return to those time-honored foods. As the editors of Grit magazine explain in the forward to their new book Lard: The Lost Art of Cooking With Your Grandmother’s Secret Ingredient, lard contains less saturated fat than butter. The fat composition of lard rendered from pigs raised on pasture is better for you than lard from pigs raised in industrial confinement. Not only are the industrial hogs fed antibiotics and growth stimulants, but commercial lard is bleached and deodorized.
New research shows that saturated fat is not the heart-slayer it was once deemed to be, whereas the trans fats found in hydrogenated fats are worse for us than we realized. (Learn more in The Fats You Need for a Healthy Diet.) It turns out that the trans fats in hydrogenated vegetable margarines and shortenings are lopsided in their ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, and those ratios have been linked to heart disease.
Most of us enjoy food for its flavor, however, not just for its nutritional value. As the 150 recipes in Lard demonstrate, this truly natural fat can contribute delicate flavor to any meal. Look to lard for flaky, tender biscuits and pie crusts, and discover how its high smoke point (370 degrees Fahrenheit) makes it ideal for frying. Grit magazine’s lard book includes information on how to locate sources for lard from pastured pigs and instructions to render it yourself.
Try these three great lard recipes from Lard: The Lost Art of Cooking With Your Grandmother's Secret Ingredient:
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Robin Mather is a senior associate editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS and the author of The Feast Nearby, a collection of essays and recipes from her year of eating locally on $40 a week. In her spare time, she is a hand-spinner, knitter, weaver, homebrewer, cheese maker and avid cook who cures her own bacon. Find her on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.