What is lard and why should I use it?
In cooking, the term lard refers to pig fat. Lard in its usable form is pig fat that has been rendered, which is a term that refers to the process that distills all the crap out of the fat leaving you with a final product that is perfect for frying and baking. It’s the source of that perfect flaky pie crust, and responsible for shatteringly crispy fried foods. As a cooking fat, it distributes heat evenly and has a very high smoke point, making it ideal for frying. While some other fats, such as margarine or shortening, break down at high heat and release toxic free radicals and bad flavors into food, lard maintains its integrity. And as it turns out, it’s not as unhealthy as once thought. But more on that below.
Can I substitute bacon grease for lard?
Lard is not the same as bacon grease. While both are pig fat, bacon grease is the result of cooked belly fat from pork that has been cured and treated. Bacon grease is a super dope frying mechanism, and makes many things delicious, but is too salty, too smokey, and too flavor-packed to act as a substitution for lard. Lard is much more neutral in flavor and only adds a subtle hint of itself into most dishes.
How unhealthy is lard?
Starting sometime in the last 50 years or so, lard got a really hard PR break. While I’m not going to sit here and argue that lard is a health food, lard is also not the horseman of the apocalypse that was once thought. Some examples of the good about lard:
- Lard is chock full of monounsaturated fats, which are considered “heart healthy”- they don’t increase your risk of heart disease and indeed may even raise “good” cholesterol levels
- The monounsaturated fat in pig fat is oleic acid, the same type of fat found in olive oil. Oleic acid reduces inflammation, risk of coronary heart disease, and may aid memory.
- Although lard is also about 40% saturated fats, the once-widely-believed connection between saturated fats and heart disease has been repeatedly disproved
Here’s the less good about lard:
- Lard does not contain the high levels of antioxidants that healthier oils do, such as extra virgin olive and coconut oils
- Lard has no polyunsaturated fat, commonly found in fish and oils such as flaxseed and safflower. Polyunsaturated fats are rich in Omega-3’s and are even more beneficial to your health than saturated fat.
The bottom line? Lard ends up somewhere in the middle in terms of healthfulness of cooking fats. It’s certainly better for you than hydrogenated oils (trans fats- more on that below) but not as great as antioxidant rich oils such as olive or coconut. And it bears mentioning that, as with all fats, more is not more. The benefits of fat come from a diet that contains moderate levels of different types of fats. Don’t load up on any of them!
Where can I find lard?
The quality of lard available in American grocery stores varies to a shocking degree. If you find “lard” on the grocery shelves check the packaging thoroughly. If the word “hydrogenated” is on it anywhere, you’re looking at a canister of trans fats, and you may as well be buying Crisco. If there’s a fat to avoid, trans fat is the one. Trans fats simultaneously lower your “good” cholesterol and raise your “bad” cholesterol. They also increase your risk of heart attack, stroke and Type-2 diabetes. As of this writing, the lard primarily available in major grocery stores and big box outlets is hydrogenated. This keeps it shelf stable longer. That said, your region of the country may also determine how likely you are to find quality lard. If you live in the South or Midwest, your chances are definitely greater.
Fortunately, quality, unhydrogenated lard is starting to make it’s way back to the shelves of many health food stores. For instance, here in Colorado I can find my favorite brand, Epic (pictured below) at Sprouts, Natural Grocers, and Whole Foods. This lard is from pasture-raised pigs eating their natural diet and will be the highest quality lard you can find. This isn’t an ad and I’m not being paid (yet), but I truly highly recommend the Epic Provisions brand. Usually it lives on the shelf near the olive oil and other cooking oils. If you have a quality meat market in your area, that’s a good bet as well. I’ve also had luck with other brands at Spanish markets and mercados. Or contact local farmers and farmers markets!
How do I choose the best lard?
Like I said above, the quality of lard available in the United States varies wildly. Typically, your best lard will be that purchased from either a local farmer, or from a health food store. But wherever you get yours, here are a few things to look out for:
- The word “hydrogenated” is not anywhere on the label. While lard that is hydrogenated will last on the shelf longer, it will also be loaded with bad-for-you trans fats
- The color is white or light yellow, but not brown.
- No other ingredients except “pork fat”
- Phrases that indicate that the pigs lived natural lives- free from factory farms- such as “pasture-raised”, “pastured”, “Certified Humane”, “no hormones or antibiotics” and, to a lesser degree, “organic”. Pigs (and all animals!) raised the way they were supposed to live create meat and fat that is healthier for you and better tasting.