Praise the (leaf) Lard

Lard gets a bad rap.  Years of diet and nutrition magazine articles telling people to avoid any and all fats have left the word “lard” up there with “nicotine” and “estate tax” in the American lexicon of bad words. Go into any kitchen in this country and while you’re likely to find all manner of processed and overly refined cooking fats, you’ll be hard pressed to come across any lard. But it wasn’t always this way. Lard – specifically leaf lard from around the pigs kidneys – has a long history of being a kitchen staple. In 1950, average consumption of lard per person in this country was 12.6 pounds per year.  Now it’s less than one.

Really lard has what you might call a branding problem.  There’s nothing wrong with it inherently, but with the push towards leaner meat, fat and fat byproducts are looked down on.  Lard has a higher smoke point than butter, coconut oil, or vegetable shortening.  Is also composed of 45% polyunsaturated fat – the good fat. Lard has a higher melt temperature than butter, but softens easily at room temperature making it just a joy to work with. Last but not least, lard has less moisture content than butter which leads to excellent flaky-pastry applications.
Lard not only makes delicious savory pie crusts, it also can be used as cooking fat and even spread onto toast for a porky snack.

Leaf lard is a soft, visceral fat from inside of the pig’s body cavity.  Whereas other fat on the pig (and there’s certainly a lot of it) is primarily subcutaneous – meaning located between the animal’s skin and muscle – leaf lard  occupies the area inside the cavity surrounding the kidneys and extending up towards the tenderloin.  There is very little leaf lard to be had in each animal, one 200 pound pig may only yield 3-4 pounds.  Clearly it’s a precious commodity.


Rendered leaf lard looking so fresh and so clean as it cools down after packaging.

In order to turn hard waxy leaf lard into the snow white creamy goodness used for cooking, it must first be rendered. A good whole animal butcher shop will have a ready supply of it pre-rendered for you, but if you are feeling adventurous lard can be rendered at home quite easily:

1.  Trim any obvious bits of meat or discolored fat and cut the leaf lard into small cubes.  Protip: if you can get your butcher to grind it for you ahead of time it will save some time and spare you a wrist ache.

2.  Put the cubed or ground fat into a heavy bottom stock pot over low heat.  Add a tiny splash of water to the bottom.

3.  Keep on eye on it as it renders, stirring occasionally to prevent anything from sticking to the bottom and adding a burnt taste to the finished product.

4.  You’ll know it’s done when the lard has turned a golden brown color and all of the cracklings have settled to the bottom of the pot.  Protip: Eat those, they’re delicious bits of slowly fried protein.  If you have access to a good digital thermometer (and you should) you can also check the temp for doneness.  When it reads 255 you’ve got yourself some rendered lard.

5.  Strain through a cheesecloth and let cool to room temp in a glass container before refrigerating.  It will keep up to a month, or a year in the freezer.

Making pie crust with rendered leaf lard puts a slightly savory twist on what is traditionally an all butter recipe.  Because leaf lard has a much lower moisture content compared to butter, there is less water present to bind dough particles together, and with less water it has the additional benefit of shrinking less as it cooks.  This coupled with the fact that lard forms very large fat crystals leads to a phenomenally flaky dough which has a deep, savory, but not quite porky flavor to it. 

Leaf lard pie crust

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt (This is one situation where I wouldn’t use kosher, I think finer table salt dissolves better)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
4 tablespoons rendered leaf lard
3 tablespoons water

Mix flour and salt in a food processor and then add the leaf lard and butter.

Pulse mixture until it forms pea sized dough-pebbles 

Mix in just enough water to get the dough to come together, then wrap in plastic and refrigerate before using.

Adapted from Melissa clark’s golden standard leaf lard pie crust recipe.

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