Using More Lard
Fat Off a Pig
by Robert Booz
I was handed two large plastic bags of fatback, folded on itself like ribbon candy, its pink skin sheathing more than an inch of pure white fat. This fat was once the firm cap over a pig’s loin and ribs, but now, butchered from the animal, it was just collecting ice crystals in the bottom of a chest freezer.
A couple of summers back, I was fortunate enough to be at North Tabor Farm when their freezer needed a little thinning out. Into my plastic cooler went chicken livers, pork hearts, pork livers, leaf lard, and two large bags of fatback. Basically all the parts that are “not real popular,” as farmer Matthew Dix put it.
In no small part due to the time I spent as a professional cook, I’m partial to variety meats and underutilized cuts. I was glad for the gifts, but it still surprises me that more people don’t jump at the chance to get pork fat, especially from the superior-tasting heritage breeds of pig raised around the Island. Whether cured into a firm lardo or rendered down into lard, pork fat is one of the best fats out there.
That pork fat is a great aid to fine cooking is no secret to most of the world. More of the world emphatically embraces the fat of a pig than doesn’t. In Japan you can enjoy a bowl of Jiro-style ramen, thick with a layer of melted lard, studded with partially rendered flecks of backfat. In China and Vietnam, lard is employed extensively, mixed in with sautéed vegetables, fishes, and meats. In Europe you might have pork fat cured and sliced thin over your pasta, as the cornerstone of confited meats and vegetables, or rendered out and served at room temperature as pure white lard to be spread over dark bread rubbed with raw garlic or onion and sprinkled with paprika. South and Central America rely on it for everything from bean dishes to the porky goodness of carnitas. Our neighbors as close as Québec use a good bit of pork fat in their traditional térrines and tourtières (meat pies).
Once, even as recently as World War II, lard was more popular than butter in the United States. We used it in our pastries, in our frying pans, and even as a spread. These days, while much of the American South still traditionally relies on lard for everything from biscuits to beignets, fried chicken to stewed turnip greens, lard is not highly regarded in other American kitchens. Why? As Jennifer McLagan describes, in her succinctly named cookbook, Fat, “The last one hundred years haven’t been kind to the pig.”
By the time that Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906, the American public was already being ushered towards cheaper vegetable oils coming out of industrial production. His account of workers falling into rendering pots that were then sold as lard certainly didn’t help fat’s image. Buoyed by what has turned out to be poor diet advice, suggesting that the vegetable oils and shortenings were better for our health, especially our heart health, time has driven the pig all but out of the kitchen.
In the minds of most Americans, pork is the dry, overcooked, “other white meat” that appears in chops and tenderloins on the dining table; and lard, an artery clogging fat to be avoided. If you are one of the few who can find it at the supermarket, it’s as a snow-white hydrogenated brickshaped oddity relegated to an obscure corner of the store, perhaps looked at but certainly not bought. But, just as the USDA recently revised its guidelines for pork temperatures (especially since the fear of trichinosis has largely passed), allowing for your pork to come pink in the middle, we too must adjust our attitude on lard and pork fat in general.
The truth is, besides the fact that lard has been used for centuries before our society decided to vilify it, modern science has proven what most of the world suspected all along: porcine fat might actually be good for us, at least if we continue to avoid that brick in the supermarket and render our own. Lard, the slow rendered, non-hydrogenated kind, is mostly a “healthy” monounsaturated fat. What’s more, the small quantities of polyunsaturated fat present in lard either convert to monounsaturated fat in our bodies or are palmitic acid, which, as McLagan wrote, is “believed to have a neutral effect on cholesterol.” The lard from some pigs even has antimicrobial properties, which means it puts off spoilage and may kill pathogens in food that cause us to get sick, one of the reasons why it’s so good for potted meats for storage—patés, confits, rillettes, and the like.
Pig fat, back in the kitchen
I’ve seen quite a few pigs around the Island. Beautiful, heritage-breed pigs, with thick layers of undulating fat that make me smile with joy. What I haven’t seen is olive trees, soybeans, rapeseed, or any of the other crops commonly used to make vegetable oils and shortenings. It’s almost ludicrous that I was able to get all the pork fat I did from North Tabor Farm at the end of the busy season, when everyone is clamoring for Island-grown, and things like Island eggs or Mermaid Farm feta are practically illicit substances, they are so hard to find.
Matthew Dix figures, “People don’t know what to do with it, mostly they just know you can use it for pastry.” Not that using lard for pastry is a bad choice. Leaf lard, the rendered fat from around the kidneys of an animal, makes delectable cookies and light, flaky crusts, thanks to its large-crystalline structure. A while back, I picked up some rendered leaf lard from the Grey Barn and did just this. Nothing quite compliments a good apple pie like a hint of pork. Leaf lard, however, is not the end of pork fat.
My favorite, if only for its sheer volume on the animal, is fatback. Fatback can be cured into a number of long-storing preparations like the Italian lardo or the Ukranian Salo—basically salted pig fat, seasoned and dried with herbs and spices, and enjoyed sliced thin, raw or cooked. Rendered into lard, fatback can be used just about anywhere you would use another cooking oil or shortening, including in place of leaf lard in pastry
This fatback lard is the lard that is classically used in the South for frying chicken. Because lard is low in polyunsaturated fats it is a great choice for high heat applications, like frying. It can get hot enough, without burning, to ensure that items fry quickly instead of soaking in the fat, the key to good tasting (and better for you) fried food.
But don’t think it’s only for deep fat frying. I use lard in the kitchen as my go to fat, in place of butter, olive oil, canola oil, or coconut oil. I think you get the point—it’s so versatile. Lard is perfect for everything from frying eggs to sautéing kale to baking rich brownies. What’s more, the low polyunsaturated fat, both in leaf lard and in fatback lard, helps keep it from going rancid. Stored in a tight container, like a Mason jar, it will keep in your fridge for up to two months, longer in the freezer.
If you render your own from Island pigs, which you should absolutely do, chances are you are going to get it skin-on. The leftover skin can be rendered a second time, producing a roasted flavored fat with crispy pieces in it. This will make the most delicious refried beans you’ve ever tried. I also like to use this second rendering for things like roasted root vegetables and in the pot with collard greens.
Pork fat is waiting in farmers’ freezers all over the Island for you to claim. Learn to cook with the fat that ruled our kitchens for centuries before Proctor and Gamble invented CriscoΠ or we all became obsessed with the Mediterranean diet and olive oil. Learn to cook with what McLagan calls the “king” of all fats. Learn to get excited when a farmer hands you a heavy bag of pork fat, it’s delicious.