What a weird headline, but apropos given what Reader Lee wrote yesterday:
There is something about lard that is bothering me, Joe, and I was wondering if you could help. I am beginning to detect a kind of lard snobbery in some foodie circles; you hear things like “the only lard worth using is leaf lard from the kidneys of heirloom pigs that have been raised in Alice Waters’ back yard.” The problem is that lots of us don’t have any access to fancy-schmancy pig fat, and are stuck with whatever our local Mexican butcher has on hand. For those of us using these less prestigious fats — should we still bother making our own lard? How big is the difference between what we’ll end up with, and the high-end, three-star lard that prominent food bloggers get to use every day?
Great comment. A very sad feature of the contemporary food scene is that every decent idea seems to devolve into just another opportunity for elite foodists to blow big bucks acquiring groceries none of the rest of us could ever find, much else afford. Now I’m not saying I’m not a foodie — I render my own lard for chrissakes — but the fuss that people make over salts, olive oils, butters, chocolates, vinegars, coffees and bacons these days…it’s flippin’ embarrassing.
Now some of these same folks are onto lard, which strikes me as equally crazy. But I need to make a distinction here: there’s lard for eating and there’s lard for rendering. It was Mario Batali who first championed Italian lardo as a delicacy in America. Now, lardo is a cured meat, in the same family as bacon, only as the name implies, it’s pure fat. Back fat to be more specific. Is that the same thing as American “fatback”? Yep, same cut, just cured with salt and herbs.
This kind of “eating” lard isn’t rendered. It’s meant to be consumed in slices on toast, crackers or pizzas. The small amounts of tissue it contains give it body and texture, and keep it from melting utterly when it gets warm. That’s a good thing if you’re a cook, but not if you’re a baker.
We bakers want our fats to disperse and melt. Which means we don’t want those bits of tissue in there holding the lard together. That’s why we render it, to separate out the tissue pieces and turn it into a smooth, flowing butter-like product that we’ll use as an ingredient in our crusts and biscuits.
That being the case, its quality isn’t critical. Yes, we want a leaf lard if at all possible since it’s milder and higher in monounsaturated fat (which melts easier and is also better for you). But beyond that, who really cares if it comes from a heritage breed of pig? It’d be like using a $20 per pound “grand cru” chocolate in a batch of chocolate chip cookies. A total waste of money as the subtleties will be lost amid the flavors of the brown sugar and butter.
Does that mean an ultra high-end ingredient is completely worthless? No. If you’re into it, knock yourself out. I like nice wine. Mrs. Pastry is into high-end chocolate. Other people dig salts, oils and cheese. All these things make sense in the right context, on their own or as a feature ingredient in a special preparation (great butter makes sense in a croissant, a vehicle designed to highlight it). But for day to day use, good is good enough. That’s as true for lard as it is for anything else.