If heaven had a smell, I can only imagine it would be the same one that comes from pork gently bubbling in lard to make carnitas. Anytime I’m feeling down it’s a sure fix for me; a reminder of the better things in life.
A Love Letter to Lard
Lard has a bit of a bad reputation in parts of modern culture. But it is simply rendered and clarified pork fat. Back in the 1920s, Americans ate nearly 15 pounds of lard per person each year. But around the time commercial vegetable shortening (like Crisco) hit the market, so did health reports vilifying animal fats. Lard consumption dropped and now hovers at a sad 1½ pounds consumed per person each year.
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It’s worth noting that many of these reports have since been proven false. In fact, some health professionals even claim lard has more health benefits than butter.
I’m no doctor. And I have no place trying to convince people that they should be eating more lard for the sake of their heart health. But what I can say with authority is that adding lard to your cooking is well worth it from a flavor perspective.
Chefs in other countries have been using this (not-so-secret) weapon all along. Tamales, refried beans, and carnitas in Mexico get their savory richness from lard. Lardy cake is a decadently dense, sweet tea cake made, of course, with plenty of lard and served on special occasions in England. In Southern Italy bakers pride themselves on their lard bread, a loaf packed with pork fat and leftover chunks of cured meats.
Pork CarnitasIt took 86 pounds of meat (and 26 pounds of lard) to crack the deceptively simple code.
Inspired by Southern chefs like the great Edna Lewis, I’ve tried my hand frying chicken in lard instead of vegetable oil. Lard takes the chicken to another level, not quite making it taste like a pig, but giving it an ultrasavory, succulent quality. And I’ve learned, by doing the hard work of eating a lot of biscuits, that those made with lard are extra tender and rich compared to their butter- or shortening-based cousins.
Lard-Fried ChickenChicken fried in oil is already one of our favorite foods. Swap in lard and it gets even better.
After I took the dive into the world of lard, I learned there’s so much versatility in the different types. In the same way a recipe may call for the use of European butter for a celebratory meal, I now choose back lard for special occasions like a batch of porky carnitas to serve for a friend’s birthday. Back lard often has to be purchased from a butcher or special ordered online. It’s a little darker in color and provides an intensely porky flavor.
If I’m making a pie crust for a pecan pie that I don’t necessarily want to remind me of bacon, I opt for leaf lard. It has a relatively mild flavor and a higher melting point, which makes for extra-flaky pie crusts.
It’s important, if you’re making biscuits or pie crust, to look for a recipe that is designed to work with lard—if you swap it directly for butter, you can get a denser baked good.
Regarding day-to-day usage, there is still plenty of variance in the white, shelf-stable lard you can find at most grocery stores. Some brands, such as Goya, are very pork-forward, while others, like Tenderflake Lard, taste more neutral. My go-to, John Morrell Snow Cap Lard, is a good, safe bet, tasting savory but not overpowering. Avoid lards that have citric acid listed as an ingredient; the package will claim it’s to protect flavor, but it does the opposite, adding a sour, off taste.
Butter and Lard BiscuitsA combination of lard and butter produces flaky, tender, mouthwatering biscuits.
As long as you know what to shop for, this old school cooking fat can bring you to a blissful world of tender biscuits, extra-savory meats, and a whole new deck of recipes to try. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying anyone should give up butter. But lard deserves a permanent place on the shelf too.