Look what I got from the farmer down the road: gorgeous, creamy leaf lard!
What’s that? Did you whisper “Ew, lard!”?
Take a deep breath, it will be OK. The weird, illicit shiver Americans get when they hear someone say “lard” is rather new. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of “lard” as an insult dates only from the 1940s.
See, chances are your great-grandmother cooked with lard. Likely your grandmother did too. (There’s a reason older people remember “grandma’s pie” and “grandma’s fried chicken” so fondly.) They probably only switched to poisonous hydrogenated vegetable shortening in the fifties or sixties, when “experts” started to warn about the dangers of saturated fats, and Procter & Gamble picked up on it in their Crisco* advertising. (“It’s all vegetable. It’s digestible!”)
Funny thing is, according to the USDA, lard contains more monounsaturated fatty acids (think olive oil) than saturated ones. Here’s the fatty acid breakdown for one tablespoon of lard: 1.4g polyunsaturated; 5.8g monounsaturated; 5g saturated. (For reference, a tablespoon of butter: 0.4g polyunsaturated; 3g monounsaturated; 7.3g saturated.) So even if you buy the “saturated fat is the devil” theory (and I don’t), lard is not unhealthy.
So how did we get to the point where the word “lard” must be said with a whisper and a giggle? It’s really rather strange. People sigh about indulging in “too much” butter. But if you suggest using butter in cooking, no one looks at you in horror. The word “butter” doesn’t evoke gasps or blushes.
Whatever the issue, I think it’s time we got over it. Lard is a wonderful cooking fat. There’s nothing in the world that can equal a leaf lard pie crust for flakiness.
Unfortunately, you can’t buy real lard in the grocery store. Grocery store lard is partially hydrogenated to give it a uniform texture and a longer shelf life. (It’s really just Crisco made from industrial pig fat instead of industrial soy and cottonseed oils.)
There are a couple of places online that sell pure rendered lard from happy (read: well-treated on small farms) pigs. Mother Linda’s is one, though she doesn’t always have enough to supply all her customers. And there’s at least one supplier on LocalHarvest that will ship.
It’s much easier to get lard from a local pig farmer or butcher in fresh, unrendered form. This means you need to melt it down yourself. But that’s not so hard. It’s really rather fun.
If you want to use your lard to make pie crusts, try to get leaf lard (the soft, creamy fat from around the pig’s kidneys). It has a unique crystalline structure that makes incredibly flaky pastry. Fatback is a harder fat from (you guessed it) along the back of the pig. It’s old time Appalachian foodâ€”the classic addition to a pot of greens. (Farmers sometimes also sell mixed fat from other parts of the pig, but the quality isn’t as good.)
To render lard, just chop it up the best you can (smaller pieces will render faster) and put it in a heavy pot with a bit of water on the bottom. Put the pot on low heat. Stir as often as you can remember. It will take hours to render. You can speed the process up a little by squishing the whole bit with a potato masher once it’s started to melt. Don’t be tempted to turn the heat up. It will make the lard taste greasy and fried.
When the unmelted bits start to sink, strain off the nice, clear lard. This is the stuff for pie crusts. If it looks like there’s still a lot of fat on what’s left, put it back on the heat to render some more. This second batch will be stronger tasting than the first, but still useful for things like cornbread and greensâ€”and frying, of course.
Strain your rendered lard through cheesecloth into clean jars. You can store the extra in the freezer.
*Yes, I know there’s “zero trans-fat per serving” Crisco now. Turns out that may be even more poisonous than the original. Are you surprised?