Have you ever tasted a perfectly-browned, flaky pie crust made with lard? Have you enjoyed the slightly crisp and wildly flavorful goodness of fresh veggies sauteed in pig fat? Have you dared to slather a creamy, delicious spoonful on a slice of sourdough bread? If you answered no to any of these questions, you are missing out. Lard (rendered pig fat, that is) was once a staple in the traditional kitchen and with good reason: this delectable fat not only tastes divine, it can be healthy for you too.
What is Lard Anyway?
Lard is pig fat. It is created by rendering, the act of slowly heating up fatty cuts of pork to draw out the fat from the tissues and evaporate any water. The pure white fat that is leftover from this process is what we know and love as lard. Leaf lard is considered the most pristine type of lard, as it is made only from the so-called "leaf" of the pig. These are protective deposits of 100% pure precious fat. There is no meat muscle in the leaf and it thus has a milder pork flavor than regular lard. 1
Lard of all types was a staple in the traditional American kitchen. Up until the turn of the century lard was the go-to fat for baking, roasting and frying. Pantries were not typically stocked with bottles of expensive olive oil and they definitely didn't have jugs of canola oil filling the shelves. Instead they were crowded with solid blocks of hearty, nutrient-dense lard. Lard was a farm to table item that was produced in the spirit of using the entire animal. When a pig was slaughtered, the fat was used to create lard. It was affordable, local and sustainable, as was most food of that time.
The Mysterious Disappearance of Lard
So what happened to this beloved fat? This questions has been the subject of several fascinating investigations in recent years, including the popular NPR segment entitled Who Killed Lard? To summarize, the case of lard seems to be a classic example of commercialism and food marketing gone wrong.
Some of the blame for lard's demise has been placed on Upton Sinclair, the author and journalist who released the muckraking novel The Jungle in 1906. His provocative book highlighted the unsanitary practices used in the large-scale American meatpacking industry during the early 20th century. Within its pages sits an unforgettably gory passage on the anecdotal dangers of manufacturing mass quantities of lard (I will let you Google that one on your own if you want to read it in full...). On the positive side, Sinclair's book helped to bring about the first food safety and labeling laws in the United States. Unfortunately, the novel also spurred an unfounded panic about the use of lard in everyday cooking. "I aimed at the public's heart," Sinclair said, "and by accident I hit it in the stomach." 2
Capitalizing on this unintended hit to lard's reputation, the vegetable shortening Crisco appeared on the shelves with a bang in 1911. This lab-made oil was created from the cottonseed oil surplus that was leftover from the failing candle making industry. Struggling to revive their business, Procter & Gamble (then a candle and soap making duo) turned their excess liquid cottonseed oil into a shortening that very closely resembled lard. This was done through the process of hydrogenation, which involves altering the structure of liquid fats to make them solid. Recognizing that their livelihoods depended on this new product, the company did everything they could to market this synthetic cooking fat to the masses. This was a tall order, especially since cotton barely passes as a food; but the pair were relentless. "It's all vegetable! It's digestible!" became the slogan of the times. Propaganda-like cookbooks were produced with Crisco-filled recipes and samples of the oil were distributed to schools and hospitals in bulk. Lard was quickly replaced in favor of this supposedly "superior" man-made product. 3
The intake of lard and other animal fats plummeted further around the middle of the century, when the medical establishment began to warn against the dangers of saturated fats. For over 40 years these once-prized lipids were condemned for inflated rates of high cholesterol and heart disease observed in the Western population. Now, the U.S. government and other top nutrition advisory panels have been pressed to withdraw these longstanding warnings. Newer, more advanced studies are showing that saturated fats are not the evil artery-clogging force that they were once believed to be. One rigorous analysis of 21 studies determined that there is no justifiable link between the dietary intake of saturated fats and coronary artery disease. Other systematic reviews conducted in recent years have shown similar results. 4, 5, 6
Of course, we also now know that the method of hydrogenation used to produce Crisco and other vegetable-based fats creates trans-fats. These nasty, unnatural by-products of hydrogenation have been implicated in inflammation, cancer, heart disease and other serious health problems, and legislation is now in place to remove them from all food products as well. 7
It is fascinating to think that scientists and health care professionals were fooled by marketing efforts to believe that America could "manufacture" its way back to health with man-made food products. Large scale manufacturing created many of our health struggles in the first place. When it comes to nutrition, the new way is going back to the old way. It is time to revive local food and home cooking. It is time to bring back the lard!
3 Reasons to Love Lard
1. Lard Contains Healthy Fats
You read that heading correctly: the words 'healthy' and 'fat' happily co-existing in the same phrase! On this blog, we are passionate about bringing traditional fats back into the kitchen. Rich, whole fats are required to support many biological processes in the body. Specifically, fatty acids are needed to prime the nervous system, produce hormones and encourage optimal digestion. Lard contains a beautiful balance of saturated and unsaturated fats, at about 40% saturated, 50-60% monounsaturated and up to 10% polyunsaturated fats. For perspective, that is about 1/4 of the saturated fat and 2 times the monounsaturated fat as butter. Next to extra virgin olive oil, lard contains the highest quantity of coveted monounsaturated fats of any cooking oil. It is also concentrated in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, while remaining low in the inflammation-promoting omega-6s. Lard therefore offers a dynamic fatty acid profile that makes it highly versatile in the kitchen and extremely nourishing for the body. 8
2. Lard is Rich in Vitamin D
These days, everyone is scrambling to get more vitamin D too. Nicknamed the sunshine vitamin, this nutrient is in high demand — especially as our modern lifestyles drive us to spend more time hunkered down inside in front of computer screens. Vitamin D is produced by the body in response to the skin being exposed to the sun. It also occurs naturally in select foods including fish, fish oils, egg yolks and yes, you guessed it: lard. The recommended dietary intake of vitamin D specified by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has long been 600 IU/day through age 70 years, and 800 IU/day for older ages. However a series of recent studies by researchers out of UC San Diego and Creighton University have shown that these doses are as low as one-tenth those needed to cut incidence of disease related to vitamin D deficiency. In other words, the human body needs far more vitamin D than was once thought to maintain healthy bones, a well-running immune system and an optimal functioning cardiovascular system. Luckily, lard contains a whopping 1000 IUs per tablespoon, making it the richest food in vitamin D behind cod liver oil. Vitamin D is also a fat-soluble nutrient, meaning that the body requires adequate amounts of fatty acids to metabolize it. Lard therefore delivers vitamin D with the necessary co-factors to assimilate it, all in one delicious spoonful! Keep in mind that this feature is unique to lard from free-range, pastured hogs that are raised with exposure to sunlight and fed a rich, greens-based diet. 9, 10
3. Lard Tastes Good
Now that we have some of the more science-y reasoning out of the way, we can get down to the most important aspect: taste. Foods cooked in lard simply leave the pan tasting delicious! The neutral flavor makes lard suitable for sweet and savory dishes alike, and it won't overpower a meal as other fats like coconut oil can. Lard has a high smoke point at around 370°F or so, and it thus remains stable at high temperatures. With all of these admirable qualities, it is really no wonder that the fat has been making a serious comeback in restaurants too. Chefs across the United States are joining what has been playfully dubbed the "lardcore" movement. The best way for you to understand this point of course, is to try some lard for yourself! Be sure to find a source that is low-heat rendered and from pastured pigs to ensure that you are experiencing the full-range of nutritional benefits. If you are feeling adventurous, try making lard the good old-fashioned way by following a recipe like this, or simply render it in a crock pot. If you decide to try some out before committing to the process of making it, I highly recommend these authentic pastured lards from Fatworks.