The New Home Economics

Cooking with lard

11 Comments

Yes, you read that right.  We’ve been experimenting with lard, on and off, for a few months now.  We’ve cut really, really far back on most processed foods in our lives, but there was one thing we still needed ye olde tub of shortening for: pie crust.  Adam is semi-famous for his pie crusts, and was reluctant to trade in something that he knew worked well for the unknown.

Now the results are in: he finally made a pumpkin pie crust with lard instead of vegetable shortening, and I am telling you: it was the most delicious crust I’ve ever eaten.  Light, flakey, and the kids went crazy for it.

We also made some ginger cookies with a half lard/half butter combination last week:

They too were delicious.

I was really nervous about using lard in baked goods because when you open up the container it smells like, well, it smells like what your kitchen smells like about 4 hours after frying bacon.  Not so appetizing.  Furthermore, we tried frying with it a few times —  once for popcorn and once for fish — and it really  made the kitchen smell icky.  I have to say, though, that both the popcorn and the fish tasted really good, with no hint of bacon flavor.  Strange, yes?

Adam was reading his Ratio cookbook and Ruhlman recommends using lard only in highly-spiced baked goods — apparently that bacony flavor can come through if you make, say, simple short-bread cookies with lard.  That makes sense to me.

But what about the health implications of all this?  Well, it never would have occurred to me to seek out lard until I read about it in Nourishing Traditions last year.  You will not be surprised to learn that Fallon and the Weston A. Price Foundation recommend using lard in cooking, as well as duck fat, chicken fat, and beef tallow.  But what about the saturated fat?  Well, let’s talk about that for a minute.

First, let’s look at this simple breakdown of Crisco shortening, Spectrum Organic Shortening (which we have been using in pie crusts), and lard.  Behold, the first-ever New Home Economics TABLE:

Name Total Fat Saturated Mono-
unsaturated
Poly-
unsaturated
“Trans”
Crisco 12g 3g 3g 6g 0g
Spectrum Organic 13g 6g 5g 2g 0g
lard 12g 4.8g 5.76g 1.4g 0g

Now, keep in mind: the amounts for the lard can vary depending on the pig’s diet. I got these amounts from Nourishing Traditions, which most likely assumes that you’re getting lard from pastured/grass-fed/free-range (whatever) pigs. I bought mine from the co-op, and it comes from Grass Run Farm in Iowa.

Why the difference in saturated fat between the Crisco and the Spectrum?  Spectrum bases their shortening on palm oil, which is a highly-saturated tropical oil.  Crisco is more of the “we’re afraid to raise our saturated fat profile” line of thinking, so they rely instead on polyunsaturates.

Which leads me to my next question: what are they replacing trans-fats with, anyway? It’s not like food processors can just remove trans fat and have all their food still taste just as good.  It’s got to be replaced with something.  Searching around trying to find the answer to this led me to, among other places: a super creepy article from the “Homepage of the Food and Beverage Industry” that describes “The Four Paths to Sans Trans” — among them are replacing trans fats with interesterified fats and genetically modifying soy beans to get a soy-based oil that is friendlier to food processing.  NICE.  If the name alone doesn’t scare you, check out more info on interesterified fats.

Even if you are not a pie-making, cookie-baking fool, all of this should still concern you if you eat ANY PROCESSED FOOD AT ALL.

So yeah, you might say that I am now a lard convert.  Never thought I’d hear myself say that.  And it’s not like I’m going to start slathering it on everything I eat.  But in certain situations, it works really well, and it is MUCH less scary than the alternatives (although the Spectrum shortening is a bit less scary than the Crisco — that high polyunsaturate number in Crisco is a red flag to me).

To the people living in fear of saturated fat, think about this: our bodies need a little bit of saturated fat.  Many vitamins, such as E and D, are much easier for our bodies to assimilate if they accompany a bit of the good stuff.  On the other hand, our bodies most definitely do NOT need ANY amount of interesterified, trans, and whatever other highly-processed thing food processors want to tempt us with.  Did I mention that lard is high in vitamin D?  (So is butter, FYI.)

Finally, there are several sustainability aspects to this.  Palm oil, like that found in my Spectrum shortening, is a major contributor to deforestation in tropical areas.  Not to mention it has to be shipped all the way to the U.S., processed, and then shipped to me.  Lard is a byproduct, yo.  The lard I bought came from Iowa.  I could conceivably make lard myself, if I had the inclination.

So what do you think?  Are you willing to take the plunge and try it?  It took me a long time of staring at that container before I took a deep breath and used it, but now a little research both online and in the kitchen have turned me into a believer.

Update, November 6, 2010: I just found this article explaining more of the science behind interesterification, and also some other interesting information about saturated/trans/interesterified fats.  Check it out!

Update, February 24, 2011: Here’s a takedown of the new USDA nutritional guidelines, and some of the best questioning of the lipid hypothesis that I’ve seen in a long time.  A must-read!

Update, March 4, 2011: Wow, the mainstream media is really catching on. This was all over my Twitter feed todayCivil Eats says “If you work out the numbers, you come to the surreal conclusion that you can eat lard straight from the can and conceivably reduce your risk of heart disease.”  Awesome.

Update, February 23, 2012: Save the orangutans. Eat lard.

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11 thoughts on “Cooking with lard

  1. Yo! This is an amazing and thoughtful article, my friend. I have been doing some research for papermaking about molecular gastronomy so I can do some funky paper stuff, and the whole hydrogenation process is some scary shit!! They have to use some nasty chem to get hydrogen molecules to bond and make unsaturated fats saturated, when all along there are other things like agar-agar that can be used to stabilize food. Go Lard!!!

  2. glad it worked out! quite a thorough investigation. the nutrition information is good to consider and look in to. when i turned to lard it was primarily a result of a desire to use the whole animal, and it’s history of versatility. ultimately i wish people could take the fear out of fat, it’s easier to process (in your belly) than something like margarine and more easily sourced.

    as an aside, i did *not* know about the spectrum deforestation situation. thank you.

    • Actually, according to the container, Spectrum sources its palm oil from family farmers in Columbia. So the Spectrum might be OK, but lots of other companies seem to be jumping on the palm oil bandwagon. The specific article I linked to was in Asia Times. It’s all so exhausting to figure out and keep track of that it makes lard look all the more attractive. Thanks for the article, too!

  3. in the vein of rendering and enjoying the bounty that is lard i meant to send you this:
    http://www.pri.org/health/praise-the-lard1453.html

  4. Interesting article but I think there is a major flaw in your logic. According to the “super creepy article” you liked to, “even though saturated fats from plant sources do not appear to raise LDL cholesterol in the same way as those from animal fats, they contribute to the saturated count on labeling.”

    So, although your lard has roughly 80% the saturated fat of palm shortening, it is “bad” saturated fat, that is, fat your body can not process well and that will contribute to poor health. Whereas the plant based saturated fats are processed easily by the body and do not contribute to the health concerns of animal fats.

    If you are going to use science to make you feel OK with eating rendered animal fat (lard), use modern scientific knowledge. Equating all saturated fats was done in the 1950’s because they just didn’t know any better. It was the best science at the time, it is what gave us hydrogenated fats (=trans fats).

    As for the 0% trans fat on the Crisco label, it is a deception to the consumer. Hydrogenation of oil is by definition trans fat. (see Crisco Ingredients: SOYBEAN OIL, FULLY HYDROGENATED PALM OIL, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED PALM AND SOYBEAN OILS, MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, TBHQ AND CITRIC ACID (ANTIOXIDANTS). http://www.crisco.com/Products/ProductDetail.aspx?groupID=17&prodID=803). What they are saying is 0% per serving. They make the serving size small enough that there is less than 1% trans-fatty acid measurable per serving, then they can say the product is 0% trans fat. But measuring trans-fatty acid is not really measuring trans-fat. It would be like measuring only one fatty acid, say omega 3 or 6, and calling that percentage unsaturated fat, it’s just a lie of symantics.

    Here’s a great wiki article on trans fat for your further reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans_fat

    • I am definitely open to new information. The research that I had read talked about high quality animal fats like lard and butter containing high amounts of vitamin A&D, which as you surely know are fat soluble vitamins that are more easily absorbed in their natural form.

      But I think there’s definitely an argument for variety. Palm oil, coconut oil, butter, and lard each contribute something unique towards health (when used in moderation, of course). I actually use olive oil, butter and coconut oil the most, and lard pretty much exclusively for pie crusts. Butter is really my fat of choice, partially because I make my own and it is delicious.

      I’ve been getting a lot of information about fats from the Weston A Price Foundation. I’ve tried to diversify and find other sources of solid information, but I can never find anyone as thorough–and uninfluenced by industry–as they are. Here’s their section on fats:
      http://www.westonaprice.org/know-your-fats.html

      Much of what they say is controversial to modern conventional thinking. I definitely don’t follow their dietary suggestions verbotem (give up coffee? NEVER!).

      Anyway, thanks for commenting. It’s good to continue the discussion as new information becomes available.

  5. Steven, it sounds as if you are assuming that transfats were invented as a way to counter some terrible poor health epidemic or something. That is interesting, considering heart disease and other heath issues attributed to saturated fats were extremely rare in those days. The real reason that transfats were invented had nothing to do with health, and everything to do with trying to find a cheaper alternative to animal fats for industrial uses – soapmaking was one reason that transfats were invented, for example. But the hydrogenated fats didn’t work as well as they had hoped, and so they had to find another market. Since it was incredibly CHEAP, they decided to market it as an alternative for butter, because butter is EXPENSIVE. Saying that it was healthier was just one way to get people to buy it (they didn’t have the truth in advertising laws that they do now days – even coca cola was advertised as a healthy drink for babies). I can assure you that the makers of transfats were not interested in health at all, just money.

  6. Lard is a good, healthy fat, and we need good fats. We eat way too many carbs bc we’re so low on fats and then we all get fat! A sure-fire, healthy way to lose weight, acc to the author of Good Calories Bad Calories, is replace all your carb intake with lard! I know, crazy! But I’m all for it! Back to lard. The way our ancestors ate is the healthy way, and they didn’t leave any fat on an animal–that was the most prized part of the animal.

  7. Interesting article, much food for thought here. I went back to butter, totally eliminating margarine, at least 10, maybe 15 years ago. I’ve got lard in the fridge – going to fry donuts – better than anything else it’s said – and my mother has always said lard was the best for piecrust. (I’m contemplating it for my oatmeal cookies today instead of crisco, which is how I stumbled on this article)
    I think one of the major differences in the ‘old days’ vs. now, was that people worked a lot harder physically back then – think farmers and manual labor for things that are mostly automated now. Still, my grandfather, who was a farmer all his life, died youngish (72) from a heart attack, and ate a fatty breakfast nearly every single day of his life (lots of bacon and sausage, fried eggs, and my dad mentioned that Grandma always had a cast iron skillet on the stove and cooked EVERYTHING in lard) , even after he retired. Throw in a genetic tendency towards high cholesterol (which my father inherited, despite medications and extreme diet adjustments and plenty of exercise), and it just ups the odds. So lifestyle and genetics also should be considered, I think. I believe also in moderation. :0)

  8. The hardest thing to do is to find a substitute for baking with children who have food allergies. Soy is in everything. Thanks for the great information on Lard which we used to use and now will go back to so the little one can enjoy baked goods.

  9. I too am allergic to soy. I have always used lard or butter in my pie crusts and the lard ones are by far the most flakey. My grandmother saved and used the fat from cooking chickens and bacon. She had a great recipe for sourdough ginger bread with chicken fat as the oil. I don’t eat much bacon but I save the lard for use in other recipes. Thanks for posting this. I never understood why people shun lard but embrace Crisco for cooking.

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