For the Love of Lard

Lard is making a comeback in the kitchen. ( PORK )

If bacon is the candy of meat, lard is the butter. At least it used to be. But the old cooking staple is making a comeback, after a century of questions about saturated fat.

Thanks to resurgence of home bakers and celebrity chefs using the ingredient for flaky pie crusts, lard may be back on the menu. And its health impacts are being reconsidered.

A recent article in Lancaster Online shares the history and process of making lard. While it’s a simple process, it’s largely misunderstood as just fat.

“When you break down a (hog), pork fat is a big byproduct,” Steve Cabalar, owner of Cabalar Meat Co., told Lancaster Online. “So we use it to cook with on our griddle, and then we put it in our frankfurters before it gets rendered. We confit (slowly cook to preserve) our chicken wings in lard as well, in the oven.”

How Lard is Made

While there are many recipes from butchers, home cooks and chefs, lard commercially sold to consumers require state and federal USDA inspection.

1. Pork fat trimmed from processors is put through a grinder to provide consistency in the rendering process.

2. The fat is rendered, or heated to a specific temperature, and simmered until the fat is liquified.

3. The pieces that don’t melt are skimmed off the top, and the rest of the lard is repackaged into a closed container and refrigerated or frozen. Refrigerated lard lasts about six months, and frozen lard can last for up to three years.

The highest grade of lard, known as leaf lard, is obtained from the "flare" visceral fat deposit surrounding the kidneys and inside the loin. Leaf lard has little pork flavor, making it ideal for use in baked goods, where it is valued for its ability to produce flaky, moist pie crusts.

History of Lard

Lard has always been an important cooking and baking ingredient in areas where pork was an important menu item.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, lard was used similarly to butter, especially in the U.S. during World War II. The industrial revolution made vegetable oils more common and affordable. Vegetable shortenings were developed in the early 1900s, coinciding with Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, though fictional portrayals of men falling into rendering vats and being sold as lard, generating negative publicity of the product.

By the late 20th century lard was viewed as a less healthy option than vegetable oils because of its high content of saturated fat and cholesterol. However, despite its reputation, lard has less saturated fat, more unsaturated fat and less cholesterol than an equal amount of butter by weight.

A Popular Ingredient Again

Several celebrity cooks tell us of the culinary benefits of using lard in baking and cooking.

Rick Bayless, who won Bravo’s Top Chef Masters with his authentic Mexican cuisine, often uses lard. A multi-talented chef and owner of the award-winning Frontera Grill and Toplobampo restaurants in Chicago, Bayless even lists lard on his essential ingredients list.

It doesn't smoke at high temperatures, so it's perfect for frying. It does wonders while roasting. And its large fat crystals mean it makes the flakiest of pastries, according to HuffPost’s article 10 Reasons You Should Be Cooking With Lard.

Health Measurements

With the discussion of which ingredient is healthier, it depends on which measure you’re using. The article spells it out:

  • Saturated fat: Lard, 40%. Butter, 54%. Vegetable oils, around 10%. The American Heart Association recommends limiting daily saturated fat intake to 120 calories, or 13 grams, based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.

  • Trans fats: Lard has none — unless it’s been hydrogenated to make it shelf-stable. Then it does contain trans fats. The American Heart Association recommends avoiding trans fats.
  • Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats: Found in lard; the “good” fats that can help lower levels of “bad” cholesterol.
  • Vitamin D: One tablespoon of lard contains 1,000 international units of vitamin D, a nutrient that more than 40% of Americans don’t get enough of. The same amount of butter contains 9 IU. Olive oil contains none.
  • Free radicals: Lard cooked at high heat maintains its chemical structure better than other oils such as canola or corn, according to Prevention magazine. The other oils can break down and release free radicals, which have been linked to inflammation.

Still, nutritionists warn, fat is, well, fat. Both the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control recommend limiting intake of saturated fat, which is at high levels in lard.

“Most saturated fat comes from animal products,” the American Heart Association says, and people should limit their intake no matter the source.