Thought I'd post this article from the NY Times (from 2001) that I've saved over the years. I found it very interesting and it alleviated some of my sense of guilt for using lard in some recipes.
Light, Fluffy: Believe It, It's Not Butter
By MATT LEE AND TED LEE
Published: October 11, 2000
ONE of the best desserts we've ever tasted was chocolate cupcakes served by a friend on her porch in South Carolina. They looked like any old homemade cupcakes, but they had a silken tenderness that was somehow intensely rich and at the same time extremely light.
As we raved about them, wondering what extraordinary chocolate they might contain, our friend confessed: ''I only had enough butter for the frosting. The cakes I made with lard.''
Even to two Southern boys like us, it was a shock. Lard seems as outdated as a wood-burning stove, as risky as a quart of moonshine. Its image is pure white fat: scarier than shortening, fattier than butter. No matter that it has a long tradition as a miracle ingredient in biscuits and pie crusts. Lard and chocolate together seemed like an exercise in excess.
Once we finished our cupcakes, though, we started thinking: If lard could perform a covert miracle on a cake, and not even overwhelm the chocolate, what other wonders could it do?
But first we had to get beyond lard's reputation. And then we had to find some real lard.
Lard is nothing more complicated than rendered pig fat, North America's primary grease from the time European explorers introduced hogs to this continent until the middle of the 20th century. Pig fat proved to be excellent for making soap, lubricating moving parts, fueling lamps -- and cooking.
Lard is nearly 100 percent fat (by comparison, the fat rendered from beef fat is 92 percent fat and butter is 81 percent fat, the balance made up with water and other solids). Cooks around the world, particularly in Mexico and Eastern Europe, still rely on it. But in this country, it has come to be perceived as sinister, the ringleader of a gang of dietary ills associated with rural poverty: overdependence on fried foods, oversalting, too few fruits and vegetables.
In the mid-1950's, just as more rural Americans were moving to the cities, the first studies linking the consumption of animal fats to high levels of cholesterol in the blood were published. Subsequent studies indicated that high cholesterol levels were a significant risk in heart disease.
Throughout the 70's and 80's, as groups of doctors and nutritionists popularized the findings, the public developed a stubborn prejudice against lard. Today, most Americans would sooner smoke unfiltered Camels while riding a motorcycle without a helmet than eat lard.
But recent studies differentiating between saturated and unsaturated fats put lard in a better light, particularly as the emphasis has shifted away from avoiding fat altogether to choosing the type of fat carefully. According to the Agriculture Department Nutrition Database, lard is composed of 42 percent saturated fat (which may increase cholesterol levels in the blood) and 54 percent unsaturated fat (which may decrease cholesterol in the blood). By comparison, butter is 43 percent saturated fat and 30 percent unsaturated, while olive oil is 14 percent saturated and 83 percent unsaturated fat.
While most nutritionists continue to reflexively discourage regular use of lard, not everyone agrees.
''Lard's not a big deal,'' said Dr. John M. Dietschy, who conducts studies of cholesterol metabolism as director of the department of gastroenterology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. ''The real danger in the human diet is in total calories consumed. All oils are extremely rich, about nine calories per gram.''
With those words echoing in our ears, we set out in search of lard. Supermarkets, in New York at least, carry it these days, but what they sell is a product that has been processed to make it solid and treated with preservatives to make it shelf stable at room temperature. It's fine if that's all you can find, but we had better luck at a butcher shop.
Faicco's Pork Store, in Greenwich Village, keeps 16-ounce tubs of fresh lard on hand, for $1.19, primarily for clients who bake traditional holiday breads. (''The younger generation doesn't have time for this stuff anymore, but the old-timers buy it at Easter and Christmas,'' Eddie Faicco, the proprietor, said.)
John F. Martin & Sons of Stevens, Pa., will ship lard by mail for $2 a quart plus tax and shipping; (717) 336-2804.
Fresh lard is white, as luminous as fallen snow and as silky to the touch as lipstick. When it melts, it becomes as clear as water. You might expect it to give off a brawny, barnyard aroma, but it is virtually odorless.
We embarked on our lard exploration by starting small, using a teaspoonful of Faicco's product instead of olive oil to make a pot of popcorn. It didn't smoke like olive oil, and the popcorn had a pure corn flavor.
Next, we tried a simple Spanish recipe for almond cookies that calls for five tablespoons of lard cut into a mixture of flour, sugar and finely ground blanched almonds. The lard, also from Faicco's, was easy to work with, and the cookies turned out biscuit-flaky and tender, with a pleasing toasted-almond sweetness and not even a hint of barbecued spare-rib.
The butcher's lard was winning us over, but now it was time to raise the stakes, to render lard ourselves, from fresh pork fat. Leaf fat, the football-size cape of dry, crumbly fat that surrounds the pig's kidney, contains the fewest impurities and thus makes the best lard for baking. We bought some at a butcher shop, cut it into one-inch squares and ran a pound of it through a meat grinder (dicing the fat would work as well).
In a cast-iron skillet placed in a 220-degree oven, the fat gradually reduced to a pool of oil, with a few white bits that, if cooked until crisp, would make cracklins. We cooled the lard and strained it into a plastic container. When it solidified, it resembled the butcher's lard in every respect except for a few flecks of carbon from the skillet.
With this high-grade lard, we were ready to tackle pie crust. For the first dough we made, we simply substituted lard for butter and the crust baked just as flaky as we had hoped, and browned perfectly. It lacked something, though: the buttery flavor we have come to expect from great pastry. So we made a second crust, adding a tablespoon of butter for every five tablespoons of lard, which gave the crust a perceptibly buttery flavor without sacrificing any of the workability or the flakiness we wanted.
Rose Levy Beranbaum, the author of the ''The Pie and Pastry Bible'' (Scribner, 1998), calls lard a ''miracle fat'' for pastry.
''Lard has the ideal plastic properties as a fat,'' she said in an interview. ''Chilled, high-quality lard immediately flakes out and distributes itself perfectly'' when cut with flour.
As she has written, these evenly spaced flakes of fat coat the flour, keeping proteins in the flour from bonding with each other and with water to form gluten, which toughens a crust. During baking, the fat melts, leaving pockets between layers of pastry that give a crust its flaky quality.
Ms. Beranbaum also noted that lard crusts don't brown as easily as crusts made from shortening or butter, but they don't shrink when cooling, either.
If rendering lard for pie crust sounds like too much work, it's worth it for savory dishes. By melting the leaf fat at a higher temperature, nearer to its smoking point of 375 degrees Fahrenheit, you can bring out a subtle essence that almost evokes roast pork. In Mexican cooking, this flavor is prized for the way it complements beans, corn and chilies, in dishes like refried beans, tamales and mole sauces.
''Lard's a voluptuous fat,'' said Rick Bayless, the chef and owner of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago and a passionate advocate of responsible use of lard. ''It rounds out flavors. A mole made with vegetable oil is all rough edges. With lard it's polished, smooth, and brilliant.''
We made a mole from one of his cookbooks, a reduction of two intense purees, one made with dried ancho chilies deep-fried in lard and softened with water, and the other a thick paste of pumpkin seeds, peanuts, raisins, almonds, corn tortillas and stale bread all deep-fried in lard. It took seven hours, but it produced a sumptuously smooth sauce, terra cotta in color, with unraveling toasty notes of concentrated chilies, ancient earth, dried herbs and suckling pig.
But the mole was only a warm-up to what seemed the most forbidding test of all for lard -- fried chicken. We dumped a pint of lard from John F. Martin & Sons into an enameled pot, heated it to 350 degrees, threw in legs and thighs dredged in flour and spices and stood back. We found it to be a very well behaved frying grease, generating very little splatter or vapor. The chicken was golden, with moderately crispy skin and exceptionally moist meat. It was just as greasy in the hand as the chicken we fried in peanut oil, but not nearly as heavy tasting.
When it came time to put the finishing touch on our own triumphant chocolate cupcakes, though, we had no butter for the icing and, naturally, substituted lard. The cakes were as moist and delicious as we remembered, but the icing was a mess that tasted as bland as a crayon and melted in the kitchen's heat.
Clearly, lard is no substitute for butter. But it's earned its place along with the olive oil in our kitchen. ??PIE CRUST WITH LARD ?Time: 1 hour
11 tablespoons cold lard
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sour cream
Milk, if necessary.
1. In a large bowl, work lard and butter into flour and salt with a fork or pastry blender until evenly distributed. Roll out on a floured surface, then scrape into a ball and roll out again. Return dough to bowl, and place in freezer to chill for 10 minutes.
2. Blend sour cream into dough to moisten, then roll out once more. If dough needs more moisture to hold it together, add a few tablespoons of milk. Work dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees.
3. Divide the dough in two, then roll out again. Press one crust into a lightly greased pie pan. Bake for 10 minutes. (A second crust can top a double-crust pie, or be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to three days, or frozen for up to several months.)
Yield: Two 9-inch single crusts. ?