© Denzil Green
Lard is fat from a pig. It may or may not be rendered. Fat from beef is referred to as “beef tallow” or “suet.”
For cooking, lard has been treasured for centuries upon centuries amongst Northern Europeans and Chinese. Now, in many people’s minds, Lard is so far out of fashion that they wouldn’t allow it into their grocery carts, let alone their homes. It’s certainly not used much anymore in processed foods, as that would put off buyers of products who are Muslim or Jewish.
Someone’s using it, though, because you still see it at the supermarkets. It never really went out of fashion in cooking in the American South. It’s still used a great deal in Chinese cooking, and in all Latin American cooking including Mexican. And, in fact, sales of lard in America have started to rise again since the early 2000s, perhaps due to the growing Spanish population. And maybe, just maybe, home pastry cooks are sneaking it into their carts again.
It is a great carrier of taste, and has a very high smoke point. In baking, Lard doesn’t melt as quickly as butter in crusts and breads, so it allows for lighter finished products. Some feel that while butter gives good flavour, lard gives the best texture, so they often swap in a bit of lard for some of the butter in recipes such as pie crusts.
Fat around the kidneys and abdomen is considered the best. The next best is the lard from the back, then lard from around the small intestines. Many butchers today, though, don’t distinguish between types of lard, and regard them all as waste products or offal; it is often sold cheaply or given away.
Unrendered lard (lard that hasn’t been melted down and filtered) can be used in some types of cooking, such as barding meat. For most other purposes, such as baking, it needs to be rendered before it can be used.
There are four main types of lard:
Pure pork fat is trimmed off the meat. It is not rendered (not melted down) or filtered. It has a stronger flavour than other types of lard.
Rendered and Filtered
Pure pork fat is melted down, filtered and clarified, then refrigerated for storage. The rendering makes the flavour a bit milder, though it still has a stronger flavour than processed lard, and makes the lard more evenly textured. It has an off-white, light amber colour.
It is generally softer than processed lard, though it can be very hard when in the refrigerator, and very soft when let sit at room temperature.
What’s leftover from making the lard — the pieces of fat or meat that didn’t render down — is called the “cracklins” and was considered a treat.
Processed lard is a pure, white lard that is made from pure pork fat that is melted down, filtered and clarified.
The lard can be melted (“rendered”) commercially in any of the following ways:
- In a sealed compartment that steam is blasted into (known as “Prime Steam”);
- Melted slowly at a low temperature (known as the “neutral method”);
- Melted with some added water in “steam-jacketed kettles” (kettles that have a jacket covering the bottom 2/3 of them, through which steam is passed to heat the kettle), known as the “kettle-rendered” method;
- Chopped, then heated in large vats with stirring paddles in them (known as “dry-rendered”.)
The lard is then bleached and hydrogenated, and has preservatives added. Sometimes it is also emulsified. The hydrogenation makes the lard stay solid at room temperature. The flavour is very mild. This is the most commonly-available lard.
You can also now buy a more naturally processed lard that hasn’t been hydrogenated and that has no preservatives added.
Leaf Lard (in French, “panne”) comes from around the kidneys and abdomen. It is considered the best lard. It doesn’t come in a solid mass or block; instead, it is layered like leaves.
Lard Oil is used for industrial purposes, and is not meant for human consumption. It’s a pale yellow or colourless oil used today as a lubricant for machinery. It also used to be used as a fuel for oil lamps. In the late 1860s, lighthouses in California switched to using lard oil instead of whale oil because it was cheaper. It is made by applying heavy pressure to lard that has been gently heated.
To render your own lard: chop whole pieces of pork fat into small pieces. Place in a sturdy pot over low heat. Stir until fat begins to melt. Once it begins to melt, it only needs stirring from time to time, because it won’t stick to the pan after that. Let simmer at a very low heat for an hour or two until all fat is rendered, and the only solid bits left are just crispy bits of meat. Let cool until it can be handled without any danger, then strain into a container with a top, cover and refrigerate.
Be very careful with the melted fat when it is hot.
Per 1 tablespoon processed lard: 116 calories, 13g fat, 12mg cholesterol
The health issue with unprocessed lard is saturated fat and cholesterol. The health issue with processed lard is that the process adds as well trans-fatty acids, caused by the hydrogenation.
Some feel that lard is healthier than vegetable products such as shortening, because shortening is hydrogenated creating trans-fats in it. Much lard, however, is also hydrogenated — if it doesn’t require refrigeration, then it is probably hydrogenated. Most commercial brands are. You can also check the label. It’s still true, though, that lard is actually lower in saturated fat than butter or palm oil.
Store lard wrapped tightly so that it won’t absorb other flavours. Depending on how the processed lard was made, it may or may not need to be refrigerated — the label will say.
Before WWII, Americans consumed 6.75 kg (14.9 pounds) of lard per person a year. During World War II, lard was diverted from the domestic market to the war cause for use in making explosives. Because it wasn’t available for household use, people switched to other fats, such as vegetable oils. New manufacturers sprang up to supply these oils.
After the war, lard got a double whammy. Vegetable oil manufacturers began advertising their oils as more healthy than lard so that they wouldn’t lose the market share they had gained. At the same time, there was not only a far lower demand for explosives, but with technological advances what explosives were being made were being made with chemicals instead of fats. Lard ended up losing both its markets.
By 2000, consumption of lard per American was down to .45 kg (1.9 pounds.)
Literature & Lore
Lard is generally used in less complimentary expressions today such as “to lard your speech”, “tub of lard” and “lard ass.”
A superstition in the Ozarks held that a sassafras stick was important in the preparation of lard:
“One often encounters an ancient notion that a woman rendering out lard will never have any luck unless she stirs it with a sassafras ‘bat’, and I have known women to walk quite a distance in order to get a proper stick for this purpose; some say that the bark of the sassafras actually flavors the lard or keeps it from becoming rancid.”1
Lard is called “lardo” in Italian if it is cured pork fat, and “strutto” if someone is referring to the clarified pork fat that English speakers think of as Lard.
The English word “lard” comes from the Latin word for pig’s fat, “lardum.”
Randolph, Vance. Ozark Superstitions. Columbia University Press, 1947. Chapter 4. ↩