Rich Man’s Lard, Poor Man’s Lard

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.

11 thoughts on “Rich Man’s Lard, Poor Man’s Lard”

  1. A consummately sensible and balanced approach to food/ingredients. I’d add that we each get to choose not only how we spend the bucks but what also tickles our own fancy whilst not putting us in jail or some other fellow in danger.

    I have always liked salt inordinately. As a kid I licked it off and discarded the pretzels. Now I can afford the delight of a crisp crystal of Murray River salt or the smokiness of another favorite (Contemporary Ocean Products from Vancouver, BC; get some every time I’m up there!). I prefer vinegar to wine by a factor of about a zillion. To me wine tastes “unfinished” while a good, balanced acidic vinegar is worth sipping. …and I often do. So I’m the girl spending sometimes embarrassing money on finishing salts and small batch vinegars. But I also cook with a whole range of things including the perfectly ordinary stuff when they’re called for. Who’s going to make pickles with Katz? Meanwhile, I’ve still got the boobs god gave me, a very pedestrian wardrobe and a serviceable car but they’re all just fine with me and left me with a few bucks to spend in the way that floats my boat.

    Thems my choices and I enjoy them. I wish the same to everyone as I know you do, Joe.

    1. Indeed, Rainey and thanks. Different strokes for different folks, and long may it remain so.

      – Joe

      1. You certainly are productive when you’re not feeling well! Or perhaps you’re starting to feel better and I certainly hope that’s the case.

  2. Thanks Joe! But just to clarify, what sorts of fatty cuts from the pig should we ask for when we go to an average butcher or market? (This for for rendered lard, as for pies and the rest.)

    1. Definitely leaf lard, and it’s more readily available than ever right now. Back lard is a decent second choice, and pretty much every butcher shop has it. As for a third choice, there really isn’t one, since most of the rest of the fat on a pig has a pretty gamey flavor.

  3. This is such a great comment from reader Nicole, I had to add it to this post just to make sure everyone saw it:

    This isn’t an option everywhere, but if a local university has a meat lab, you can sometimes ask them to procure you a whole leaf lard (lard leaf? what do you call the object itself?). At least, the meat lab near my local university will do it. In my case, if I want a non-standard cut, I have to request it and wait for the next pig they butcher, but it’s usually not more than a week or two, and their animals tend to be pretty high-quality. Plus, the prices are good, and it helps out the students.

    1. What an amazing suggestion! I hadn’t even thought of that. I searched the website of the university near me and found that they have a meat lab and will sell you retail cuts of meat (beef, pork and lamb). With advanced notice, they will also sell you special cuts. They are also a source of grass fed beef. Thanks Nicole for the suggestion and Thanks Joe for posting it!


    1. That’s generally a lower grade lard (belly or subcutaneous lard). Leaf lard is the stuff, trust me. 😉

      – Joe

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