Lard – does it deserve a place in your kitchen?

If anyone mentions the word “lard”, the reaction is probably going to be “oh, no”, “absolutely not”, or something similar. It is almost surely going to be a negative comment. Is that negativity justified? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip. Please note that I am not going to discuss the nutritional and dietary concerns about lard, saturated fat or hydrogenated fat. Those are important topics that you should investigate before consuming any solid fats.

Lard is pork fat that has been rendered from the meat by cooking slowly until the fat is melted and then separated from the meat. It is then filtered and chilled. The quality is dependent on the area of the animal that the fat comes from and the method of rendering.

The best kind of lard is leaf lard. This comes from the fat around the animal’s kidneys. It is softer, creamier and smoother than other types of lard. It is the best choice for baking. It is also naturally free of pork flavor.

Unrendered lard – pig fat that has been trimmed from the meat, not melted. It will have a stronger pork taste and probably not suitable for baking or anything where you do not want that flavor element.

Rendered lard – has less strong pork flavor. It has been melted, filtered, clarified and refrigerated for storage. It will be an off-white color and will be softer than processed lard at room temperature.

Processed lard – this is the most commonly available lard and is made by melting, filtering and clarifying pork fat by bleaching and hydrogenating. The former gives the product a pure white color and the latter keeps the lard solid at room temperature. It also most likely will have preservatives. It has no lingering pork flavor but does have a mild, nut-like flavor.

Why might you want to consider using lard?

  • Baking – lard has a higher melting point than butter, meaning it stays solid longer in the oven. There is more time for the steam to produce air pockets resulting in flaky pastry. Also, because lard is 100% fat, it contains no water. Water is one of the ingredients that facilitates gluten development. Less gluten means more tender baked goods.
  • Sauteing, grilling, frying – lard has a fairly high smoke point (although not as high as some oils) and thus, is particularly suited to frying. Items fried in lard end up very crisp and have less of a tendency to stick.
  • Roasting – lard gives a crispy outer crust to such items as roast chicken or roasted potatoes.
  • Seasoning cast iron – there are those that say there is nothing better than lard for this task.

Cooks Illustrated tested different brands of lard for taste and how they did in baked goods. They found that some lards created pie doughs that were “light and flaky” while other brands resulted in “sandy and crumbly” doughs. What they found is that the lowest ranking lards had the lowest melting points of those tested. This meant that the lard melted more quickly and thus, less air pockets.

Their testing rated U.S. Dreams as the best artisanal lard. Another recommendation in the non-hydrogenated category was Tenderflake, a Canadian product. A third one was Fatworks Pasture Raised Pork Lard. Although not tested by Cooks Illustrated, Fatworks also carries a leaf lard. One unbleached and non-hydrogenated product that is a bit easier to find in my area is made by Epic.

Because artisanal lard is very difficult to find in most grocery stores, they also looked at supermarket brands and rated Morrell as their favorite. Morrell, though, is not the same product as the pricier, more pure lards. If you really want to cook with lard, I suggest going for the best.

That may mean ordering online or doing a bit of searching in your local stores. There is always the option of rendering your own. Our local butcher shop no longer carries lard due to lack of demand. They recommended that I could just buy the bulk pork fat and render my own. I have not done this so far, but am seriously considering it.

Finally, if you are wondering about substituting lard and other fats, here are the recommendations.

  • 1:1 lard for shortening
  • For every ½ cup of lard, use ½ cup + 2 Tbsp butter
  • 1:1 lard for olive oil
  • For 1 cup lard, 7/8 cup vegetable oil
  • 1:1 lard for coconut oil

I recently made some Chicken Cornish Pasties and the pastry called for part shortening and part butter. I used Epic’s brand of pork fat in place of the shortening and it did produce a very flaky pastry. Do you use lard? If so, which kind? Have you ever rendered your own? Let me know your experience; I would love to hear about it.