Every Friday, Cara Nicoletti of The Meat Hook helps us get to know our favorite cuts of meat a little bit better – and introduces us to a few new ones, too. Read on, study up, then hightail it to your nearest butcher.
Today: Why you should be baking -- and cooking -- with lard, plus a recipe for flaky, soft, rich biscuits you should make this weekend.
Poor lard. No other fat in history has gotten quite so much flak. The use of lard in cooking and baking has a long and tumultuous history in the US -- to me, its rise and fall (and recent revival) is one of the most interesting food stories we have. It used to be that everyone used lard without question; it was a stable and inexpensive fat that was abundant thanks to country’s the booming pork industry.
One of the main contributors to lard’s fall in popularity was a scene in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle in which workers at a meat-packing plant fall into boiling vats of rendering lard. It was so effective in turning people away from lard, in fact, that an entire pro-lard ad campaign was launched to undo its damage. Full-page ads of smiling, healthy couples with the words: “They’re young. They’re in love. They eat lard,” ran in every paper. The truth is, while lard can by absolutely no means be called “healthy,” it has less cholesterol and saturated fat than butter, and unlike most vegetable shortening, it does not contain trans fats. In moderation, and in combination with regular butter, it truly does make the tastiest pie crusts and biscuits.
So what is lard? Lard is the fat of a pig, either in its rendered or un-rendered form (above). While any pork fat can be considered lard, not all lard is created equal. That hydrogenated lard you see in the supermarket? Not the same thing. Don’t buy that. The very best lard for baking is leaf lard (pictured above), which is the hard white fat surrounding the pig’s kidneys. Rendered down, it has a (close to) neutral flavor and scent and adds both richness and lightness to your pastries (richness and lightness don’t have to be mutually exclusive, says lard).
Crusts and biscuits made with lard are flakier because they lack structure. Lard and shortening work by coating the flour particles and gluten strands in your doughs (literally “shortening” the strands, which is where the term comes from), thus preventing them from forming a strong bond. The stronger the bond, the tougher the crust and vice versa. Lard also has a higher melting point than butter, melting between 109 and 118° F while butter melts somewhere between 90 and 95° F. A slower render means more air and steam-release, which means more leavening and flakiness. The fat crystals in lard are also larger than those in butter, which means there is more empty space left behind when the fat renders out -- more space also means more layers and flakes.
A few things to note:
- First thing’s first: Buy lard from well-raised pigs. Most of an animal’s toxins are stored in fatty tissue -- if your pig didn’t live a good life, you don’t want its kidney fat in your pie crust.
- If you want to render your own lard, you'll need to grind it first. If you don’t have a grinder at home, ask your butcher to grind your unrendered leaf lard for you -- this will help it to render more evenly. If you don’t have a butcher (sad!), just cut your unrendered lard into small cubes.
- To render your own: Cover the bottom of a heavy pot with about 1/2 inch of water -- this just helps to keep the lard from scalding while it’s rendering. Add your ground or cubed lard over medium-low heat and cook it, stirring occasionally, until the fat is completely liquid, and the cracklings (the bits of meat left behind) are deeply golden brown and have sunk to the bottom of the pot. This should take about an hour. (Warning: Turn on your fan and open a window; this part is stinky.) Strain the lard through cheesecloth into a mason jar (something that can withstand high heat) and let it cool in the refrigerator until it is solid. The liquid fat will look yellowish and have a strong smell, but once it’s cooled, it will be creamy white and have barely any smell at all.
Makes 10 to 12 biscuits
1 cup pastry flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (4 ounces) rendered leaf lard
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 to 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Photos by James Ransom