On Laminating Fats

Reader Sara writes in from Spain to say, first of all, how delicious xuixos are when they’re made with love. And more important than that, butter. She observes also that when she was younger, bakers in Spain used lard instead of butter as a laminating fat. So most croissants (and, by extension, xioxos) would contain lard instead of butter, or perhaps a mix of the two fats.

This isn’t as odd as it may sound to come ears, since good quality lard — i.e. leaf lard — stands in very well for butter. It has more or less the same consistency, and about the same melting point. So from a functional standpoint, you come out even when you trade lard for butter. But then lard tastes rather different, quite “piggy”compared to lighter, sweeter tasting butter. So why use it?

In a word: economics. Butter costs more than lard. Depending on the times, much more. No surprise then that lard has always been considered a poor man’s fat. It’s common in places than have historically seen a good deal of poverty: the American South, Southern Italy, Spain. The American South doesn’t have a tradition of laminated dough (they make biscuit and pie dough with lard, though), but both Italy and Spain do, which is why you find lard in Spanish croissants and in Italian cornetti. Lard is the go-to fat for Argentinian croissants also, because well, you guessed it, poverty and pigs.

Those who find such talk off-putting should remember that the all-butter croissant is a rarity these days, even in France. The vast majority of croissants there are made with margarine. Why? Because most of the laminating done in France these days is done by machine, and margarine is far more machine-friendly (not to mention less expensive) than butter. The good new is that you can easily spot a margarine (or other non-butter) croissant when you’re there, as French law mandates that non-butter croissants be made in a crescent shape, and butter croissants in the straight tube shape.

I’m not sure, but I think in Spain does it that way too: lard croissants (medialunas de grasa) are the crescent shape, and the butter croissants (medialunas de manteca) are straight. Or maybe there’s no law regulating that. Reader Sara, help me.

The main thing to remember is that there is more than one way to roll a croissant. I like all-butter croissants quite a bit, but the margarine kind can be very nice too. A lard croissant is also a splendid thing, especially in a savory setting, though I can easily imagine one for breakfast as well. Contrary to the myths you read on the internet, they do not have a greasy mouthfeel. Though they do taste like bacon. And your problem is…?

15 thoughts on “On Laminating Fats”

  1. Another way to spot an all-butter croissant in France is that it will often be labeled “croissant au beurre” or “croissant pur beurre” (legally they can only be labeled that way if they’re made with butter). They’re worth seeking out and usually not terribly hard to find, nor are they appreciably more expensive than the margarine variety. But if you get your croissants at the grocery store, the corner café, or the cafeteria at work, they’ll generally be of the margarine variety.

    Personally, I find the all-butter version is usually crispier and more tender than the margarine version, but (for me, at least) it is difficult to know what differences are due to margarine vs. butter and what is down to the other compromises that are often made when adapting a food product to mass production.

    1. Hey Alan!

      Hehe…no question. The signs they hang on them are another dead giveaway! And you’re quite right, it’s not as if butter croissants are hard to find, they’re just not as common as the margarine kind these days. They’re a bit like real Danish pastries. They’re not exactly hard to find in Denmark, but the real thing is a lot less common than it used to be, sadly.

      You’re also quite right that it can be very hard to tell butter pastry from Margarine pastry by taste alone. As a matter of principle I probably prefer all-butter as well, but a well-made margarine croissant can be very, very nice.

      Many thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  2. LARD! One of my favorite subjects! When we first moved to the South, we could only find grocery store lard and it definitely tastes piggy. Manteca was about the only choice except for small neighborhood stores where you might find another brand.

    Later, we found a ranch in Minnesota where we could purchase leaf lard but it was quite expensive and inconvenient due to limited shipping times.

    For the past several years we’ve been lucky enough to get pure leaf lard from our local artisan butcher. I believe Porter Road Butcher even ships. It has no piggy taste whatsoever. I use it in biscuits, pie crust and even the occasional cookie. My holiday pie crusts were made with 50% butter, 25% lard and 25% shortening and were perfect, if I do say so.

    A few weeks ago, Jack Bishop on Cook’s Country did a taste test of lard. He must have had about a dozen brands they tested, some grocery store, some mail order. The winner was US Dreams available by mail order only, followed by John Morrell Snow Cap lard available in some stores, and lastly Armour recommended for cooking only, not baking.

    You won’t be surprised to know I even have a lard cookbook. “LARD – The Lost Art of Cooking with Your Grandmother’s Secret Ingredient” from the editors of Grit Magazine.

    1. I’ve heard of that place in Nashville, Linda. I’ve never been there, mostly because here in Louisville it’s easy to score leaf lard from the meat purveyors at local farmers’ markets. I have to render it myself, but then that’s part of the fun. I’ll check out that book!

      Cheers and thanks!

      – Joe

  3. You’ve got the croissant shapes in France the wrong way round… the straight ones are all butter. I’m not sure it’s THE LAW, might just be the modern convention.

    1. Aha! Thanks Pete, I’ll make that change. As for the laws, when have you ever known the French NOT make a law about food? I’m pretty certain of that one, but I’ll double-check!

      Cheers,

      Joe

      1. Yeah, I’d heard the same but a (quick) search couldn’t turn up anyone who was able to point at the actual regulation. Maybe you’ll have more luck. 🙂

        1. This blog post doesn’t give the cite, but I’m with Joe: quite sure the French went ahead and regulated this, as they are wont to do…

          http://www.ayearinfromage.com/2015/07/get-your-croissants-straight-long-blanc.html

          The way I first heard it, umpty years back, is only all-butter may have straight ears but the curved-ear variety may be combination, margarine (or, presumably, lard or some other fat, if that’s legal in France), or all-butter. If I were a baker in a France, my butter croissants would have straight ears for two reasons: self serving virtue signaling (in case folks know this rule) and because straight ears are objectively better (fight me).

          Regardless, the ears are the best part.

          1. Well said essbee, and it’s not just because I agree with you on all points.

            – Joe

      2. It seems even many French people aren’t sure whether this is governed by law or convention. See, for example, this discussion that is quite similar to the one we’re having here (in French, sorry): https://askfrance.me/q/existe-t-il-une-loi-franc-aise-re-gissant-la-forme-du-croissant-60454191001

        I made a brief attempt to find something on my own, but all I managed was to find legal definitions of what constitutes butter in patisserie. My French is good, but definitely not native-level.

        All of that said, French Wikipedia suggests that Pete is correct about the straight ones being all-butter. I happen to live a short walk from the bakery that won the prize for best croissant in Paris a couple of years ago (and it’s good, but the best?) — it’s definitely all-butter, but I admit I’ve never paid much attention to whether my croissant is straight or curved. I certainly will now….

        1. It’s great to have an on-the-ground correspondent for these sorts of things, Alan. Thanks very much!

          – Joe

  4. Hello again Joe!
    About the shape of the croissants, at least here in Spain I think there is no regulation about it, every baker do it their own way but you only find one shape in every cafe/bakery. They can be the crescend ones or the straight tube ones.
    I think instead of the margarine/butter/lard option here you can only find two options: quality or non quality at all. Sometimes they were so bad I looked at the ingredients list and they just mentioned hidrogenated fats. At first it thought it would be because of the margarine, but years ago the first time I tried to make croissants I did with margarine and they were quite delicious though shapeless lol.
    But I think the poor quality must have to do with those weird fats and strange additives they may add. It is incredible those things are considered of enough quality to be eaten. I started to understand the people that say they don´t like sweets, when all you can find is that poor quality in pastries/buns/cookies etc is the most intelligent option.
    Funny thing I just found a picture I did of the lardy ones they make in a super tiny bakery here in next town so I will send it to you later.
    Regards!

    1. Hey Sara!

      Very interesting. Based on what you say, I guess you really do need to find a baker you like and trust. For indeed there are many different kinds of “roll-in” fats out there. The lower-quality kinds that you’re describing almost certainly have a high proportion of vegetable shortening in them. And while shortening can be a very useful thing on occasion, I agree with you that it makes a very poor fat for a croissant.

      I shall look forward to that picture!

      – Joe

  5. I’ve made one of the traditional lardy cake recipes from Elizabeth David’s bread book – it’s decidedly different from a butter recipe, but very tasty. Lard gives a noticeably different texture, I assume due to not containing any water. I might have to try it in croissants, especially since I know someone with a severe dairy allergy, which makes it really hard to bake for him.

    Related to that, a friend and I are splitting a whole pig carcass and butchering it this weekend; I plan on making off with as much of the leaf lard as I can get my hands on.

    1. Hey Jane!

      Outstanding! What did you make? I’m interested. But yes you’re right, lard does give baked goods a different “feel” as it were. Partly because, yes, well-rendered lard contains very little moisture. It also melts differently than butter, making the overall effect rather…unique. And I mean that in the best possible way.

      And way to score some good, fresh lard! You’ll have fun rendering that. If you have access to an outdoor oven for the process I recommend it, since lard rendering can make a house smell rather piggy, especially in the cold months when the windows are closed!

      Let me know how it all goes — especially the lard croissants. I don’t have access to my home supply of lard just now, otherwise I’d give them a whirl. You’ll have to make them for me!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

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