Why You'll Want to Cook and Bake with Leaf Lard
This once common fat is popular again among cooks in the know, and for good reason.
Depending on your age, you may or may not be familiar with lard. The cooking fat was once a staple ingredient in home kitchens, though over the years, it has become something of a mysterious one. One particular variety known as leaf lard has become trendy once more, particularly favored among so-called modern homesteaders, pastry chefs, cookbook authors, and avid home bakers. It's prized not only for the qualities that it brings to baked goods, but also for the things that it doesn't. Because it's dairy-free, lard is a favorite among those who follow a Paleo or Keto diet as well as with those with lactose sensitivities. It's also free of trans fats, and ounce for ounce, contains less saturated fat than butter.
Produced from pig fat, lard is used in recipes both savory and sweet and as a cooking oil prized for its high smoke point. Read through enough vintage cookbooks from the 19th century (and classic novels with vivid descriptions of food, like Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series), and you'll see lard included in many recipes for cakes, cookies, cornbread, and pies. Way back then, it was used as commonly as we now use butter. (Because it's semi-solid, like butter, it was often spread on bread, too.) Due to a number of factors, including the invention of hydrogenation and the subsequent mass marketing of processed oils (notably, vegetable oil and shortening), lard fell out of favor.
Aside from its historical context, it's important to note that not all lard is created equal. Just as the quality of cuts of meat differs from section to section on any animal, the quality of lard depends on which region of the pig the fat is rendered from. The best variety (meaning the most delicate, least "porky" tasting), leaf lard, comes from the soft fat around the pig's kidneys. More widely available, lesser quality lard is produced from fatback (as its name implies, the fat from the back) or caul fat (surrounding the intestines and other digestive organs) of the pig.
What to Look For
For the "cleanest" flavor, be sure to seek out pure rendered leaf lard. It's available at quality butcher shops, farmers' markets, and from online retailers ($19.99, amazon.com). Even if you don't see leaf lard listed among your butchers' offerings, ask if they'll sell you some. Who knows? They may carry it regularly if there's enough of a demand. Whatever you do, avoid the boxed varieties of lard sold in supermarkets, which are generally poor quality.
You may be interested in rendering your own lard, as Martha has. It's not at all difficult, though the process takes several hours. As with commercial options, it's best to begin with the soft fat from the kidney section of the pig.
How to Use Lard
Once you've secured some leaf lard, what should you do with it? Consider baking a simple biscuit or working it into pie dough. Leaf lard produces exceptionally tender pastry with a beautiful flake. Sarah Carey, our editorial director of food, reaches for leaf lard when she's making pie crusts for savory pies. She also chooses leaf lard when making refried beans, touting the authentic flavor it brings to the dish. (Lard is the cooking fat of choice in many Southwestern dishes like refried beans, tamales , and the nicely spiced, cut-out cookies called biscochitos.)
Give leaf lard a try, and it may very well become a staple ingredient in your kitchen.