Poor lard. It's so misunderstood.
According to Jennifer MacLagan, the author of Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, With Recipes, “At the beginning of the twentieth century, lard was the most popular fat in our kitchens. Readily available and more versatile than butter, lard was used for sautéeing, frying, baking and even as a spread.”
So much has changed since then. Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, we were all taught that we should be eating healthier fats, like margarine. When Danny and I were growing up, in the 70s, day-glo margarine came in fat yellow tubs. The texture resembled nothing in nature. It didn't have much taste. But margarine is what we ate. I made grilled cheese sandwiches with Wonder Bread, American cheese, and margarine, on a plug-in griddle. I didn't know any different.
At least my mother used butter for our baked goods. Maybe that's why I craved them so. But lard? Absolutely not.
As McLagan says, “As for lard, the mere mention of the word strikes horror into all but the most fearless gourmet. Most of us equate lard with obesity and imagine that anything cooked or made with lard ends up with a faintly piggy taste and loaded with bad fat. Lard, we believe, is just waiting to migrate from our food to our hips, stomachs, and worst of all, our arteries, the moment we swallow.”
Would you be shocked to find out that we all would have been better off eating lard than that day-glo margarine?
Most margarines are full of unhealthy trans fats, because of the way they are processed. And as you may have noticed in the popular culture these days, trans fats are not so good. In fact, looks like they're far worse for the body than the saturated fats in butter. Many scientists and doctors are starting to state this: we should be eating good fats. They're good for our body. They have existed for hundreds of years, unlike the man-handled new foods. Industrial foods may sound tempting, but what are they?
As Michael Pollan and a chorus of other food scientists and writers have started to sing out, our nation's obesity and health problems started when we began banishing traditional fats and real food from our diets. What if we ate like the grandmothers of this generation ate? What if we ate lard again?
Well, as Rick Bayless, one of the leading authorities on Mexican cuisine, states in his book, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico “….for those of you who have developed that inexplicable squeamishness about lard, according to the USDA, lard has less than half the cholesterol than ordinary, respectable butter.”
(And if you think you've never eaten lard, you should know that any good Mexican restaurant fries its tortilla chips in lard. No wonder we can't stop eating them.)
Turns out that lard — pork fat rendered down — is full of unsaturated fats. (Take a look at this editorial by Nina Planck in the New York Times if you want to read more about this.)
If you buy lard that has been rendered without hydrogenation — from a local farmers' market or made yourself — you'll have a rich, flavorful supply of healthy fat in your kitchen.
Kim O'Donnel, of A Mighty Appetite, wrote a few years ago: “I had always been curious to try lard, but honestly, I was a bit squeamish. Those blocks sold in the supermarket looked less than appetizing, and I didn't know where else to source the stuff. It wasn't until cooking school in Italy that I began to learn the role of lardo in Italian cooking as well as its subtle, delicate, far-from-hammy flavor. The lard of a pig feasting on apples and nuts on pasture tasted like apples and nuts, not a greasy film of diner bacon fat (or Crisco).”
I admit, I've been squeamish about lard, as well. I guess I didn't really understand it. Danny has. He braises his pork belly in pork fat, when he's cooking at a restaurant. He's rarely squeamish about meats or fats. He knows real food. And he's one of the healthiest people I know.
It was reading this piece in The Washington Post that finally turned my curiosity into a tub of lard sitting in our refrigerator. I can't resist any longer.
As our friend Matthew Amster-Burton writes in his upcoming book, Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater: “Fat is our Hurricane Carter, our Claus von Bülow: wrongly convicted and still tainted even after its acquital. The best evidence at this point says that dietary fat (with the exception of trans fat) is unrelated to heart disease and cancer risk, and also unrelated to weight gain, except for the studies that suggest that low-fat diets cause people to gain weight. Still, admit that you cook with lard and people will react like you keep a loaded gun in your kids' room.”
So will you think us ridiculous if we tell you that we scramble farm-fresh egg yolks in local lard for our 8-month-old daughter's breakfast? And would you believe us when we say that the morning she first ate that breakfast was followed by the first time she ever crawled? Our girl loves her lard.
We'll be cooking and baking more and more with lard in this kitchen. Soon, I want to try some of the recipes in this book from the 1950s: Mealtime marvels: Lard in 133 Recipes. (I'll be adapting them to be gluten-free, of course.)
Join us, won't you?