Lard is in.
Furthermore, there is nothing new about lard. In Europe, lard has been used for thousands of years and has a deep tradition in the many rustic regional cuisines. In any culture where pigs were raised, the fat of the animal was usually considered just as important as the meat.
Lard has a long history in the New World, too. This country was built on lard, the staple fat of the American frontier. Long before Americans ever heard of olive oil or vegetable shortening, there was lard. As American pioneers moved West, their pigs moved with them, clearing the land, reproducing prolifically, and providing fresh pork, hams, bacon and, of course, lard.
Like many of my contemporaries, I grew up on lard. Both sides of my family, the Hungarian side and the Southern side, used lard regularly. For my Hungarian grandparents, lard was the cooking fat of choice (in Hungarian cooking, butter is used for ‘light’ dishes). In the American South, lard has always been used to make the fluffiest biscuits and flakiest pie crusts.
In our household, as in most homes across rural America, lard was a part of everyday life. Used for everything, from baked goods to frying chicken, lard was consumed in vast quantities, as evidenced by this gigantic lard tin from my grandparents’ farmhouse.
So what happened?
By the middle of the 20th century, lard had gained a reputation of being less healthy than vegetable shortening or oil, largely because of its high saturated fatty acid and cholesterol content. Solid vegetable shortening, marketed as safer, more digestible, healthier and somehow “cleaner” than lard slowly became the cooking fat of choice.
In fact, we now know that lard has less saturated fat, more unsaturated fat and less cholesterol than butter. And unlike most vegetable shortenings, unhydrogenated lard contains no trans fat and is a rich dietary source of vitamin D.
Solid vegetable shortening, containing partially hydrogenated fats which are very high in trans fats, has recently been shown to be a contributing factor in the increase of heart disease.
At long last, after years of being vilified as an “unhealthy” fat, lard has been rehabilitated and is finally making a comeback. Bottom line – lard, when used in moderation, is good for you.
High quality lard is surprisingly easy to make. Of course, you have to start with a high quality raw material. And nothing can beat Mangalitsa fat when it comes to quality.
Recently, I was lucky enough to get my hands on 10 pounds of Mangalitsa leaf fat and decided to try my hand at transforming it into pure, creamy lard.
Mangalitsa pigs are known for their prodigious fat production – as well as its unsurpassed quality. Any rendered pig fat can be used for cooking, but the best lard comes from back fat, the thick layer of fat that lies under the skin along the back and sides of the pig and “leaf fat,” the rich fat deposits found inside the loin and around the kidneys. Of the two, the superior is leaf fat.
Mangalitsa (or Mangalica) pigs are a Hungarian heritage variety, originally bred for their fat production. Sometimes called “woolly pigs” for their thick curly hair, the Mangalitsa breed had almost disappeared when it was rescued from extinction by a dedicated pair of pork lovers 20 years ago. After years of intensive effort, there are more than 20,000 Mangalitsa pigs in Europe and several thousand more currently being raised here in the United States.
Anybody who has ever cooked bacon has the general idea of how to render the oily stuff from a piece of fatty pork. But when we’re making lard, we want to do things a little differently. Leaf lard is almost flavorless and odorless, straight from the pig. This is the quality that you will want to carefully preserve if you plan to use your lard in baking, in making pie crust and pastry.
In the old days, fat was often simply chopped up and tossed into a large kettle. The fat was heated until the liquid lard flowed freely and was poured off into crocks where it would solidify and be stored for later use. Simple, yes, but rendering lard over high heat may result in a “bacon-y” flavor that can make it unsuitable for delicate pastries.
Heating raw fat at low heat over several hours will yield a bright white, clean tasting lard that is suitable for just about any use.There are any number of methods of separating the semi-solid lard from the tissue that holds it together. Some methods are better suited to large-scale industrial applications, but there are plenty of ways to make lard of excellent quality in the home. Here’s how I did it.
First, I cut the fat into small pieces, about 1/2 inch or so in diameter. Fresh leaf fat is pretty soft. It’s actually easier to work with if it’s chilled & firm, so keep it in the fridge until you’re ready to begin.
Use a sharp knife – while the fat itself is as soft as butter, there will be some thin tissue to cut though and the process will be a lot easier if you can cut it into neat little cubes. Some people suggest grinding or chopping it finely in a food processor, but that sounded a little too messy.
I decided to try two methods of rendering the lard so I could compare the results. I put half of the raw fat cubes into a slow cooker with an adjustable thermostat and half into a large covered stainless steel pot which I placed in the oven. I set both the oven and the slow cooker to 200 degrees and left them alone for 12 hours.
Next morning, I checked both batches to see the results. Honestly, I could not tell the difference. In both the slow cooker and oven versions, the previously solid fat had transformed into nearly clear liquid with a few small fatty cubes floating here and there. The aroma and flavor was bland and mild. Success!
Straining the lard
Straining the warm, liquid lard is the final step in the lard-making process. It couldn’t be simpler. A fine mesh strainer lined with several layers of cheesecloth is all you need to filter out any solids. Pour the rendered lard through the strainer into a large measuring cup – this makes it easy to transfer the strained lard into jars or storage containers. Chill until firm and your fresh, clean lard is ready to use!
Lard stores very well. Tightly closed containers will remain fresh and sweet in the refrigerator for many weeks, but for longer term storage, put your lard into suitable containers and freeze for 6 months or more.
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